WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether the president may order that people picked up in the United States be detained indefinitely and without criminal charges.
The court is undertaking a fresh review of the Bush administration's aggressive use of preventive detention for suspected terrorists. The administration asserts that the president has the authority to order the military to detain anyone suspected of being an al-Qaeda member.
The administration's policy is being challenged by Ali al-Marri, a Qatar native who was seized in the United States and is the only enemy combatant being held on U.S. soil. The government says Marri is an al-Qaeda sleeper agent.
Marri, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, says he cannot be imprisoned without charge or trial. He was arrested in Peoria, Ill.
Marri has been held in virtual isolation in a Navy brig near Charleston, S.C., for nearly 51/2 years.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., ruled in a split decision that the president has such power but that Marri must be given the chance to convince a federal judge that he is not an enemy combatant.
The administration argued that Marri's case should first go to federal district court in South Carolina instead of to the Supreme Court.
Marri said the case was of such constitutional importance that it should be heard by the high court now, and the justices apparently agreed.
The case will not be argued before March, meaning that President-elect Barack Obama will be in the White House, and decisions about Marri will be made by him.
During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly criticized President Bush for being too aggressive in asserting executive authority.
Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the transition team, has previously refused to say what Obama would do about Marri. She did not immediately comment yesterday.
Obama also is weighing what to do with the roughly 250 foreigners who are being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The court has ruled that those men must be able to argue for their freedom before a federal judge, but it has not questioned the authority to seize and hold them.