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Rights at Risk in Wartime


The surprise terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, stunned the nation. As commander-in-chief, President George W. Bush responded quickly, but soon all three branches of government would be embroiled in the struggle to balance national security with the protection of individual liberties amid a war on terror.

On the authority of President Bush and with the support of Congress, suspected terrorists from around the world were rounded up, labeled as enemy combatants and imprisoned on the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There they would be held indefinitely and their rights restricted – no habeas corpus and no access to the judiciary.

Legal questions arose about the actions of the president and the legislation passed by Congress during this period. Only the Supreme Court could determine if the Constitution had been violated. The battle for protecting individual rights moved to the Court.

The principles of the Constitution apply in wartime, just as they apply in peacetime. Even in an unconventional war, the rights of those under the jurisdiction of the Constitution must be protected. The president and Congress have the power to deal with a real crisis, but how they handle it must be within the constraints of the Constitution.

This lesson is based on an Annenberg Classroom video Habeas Corpus: The Guantanamo Cases that explores the four Supreme Court cases known as the Guantanamo cases. These cases are examples of how the Court, the president and even Congress fought to balance national security and civil liberties during the war on terror, a war that continues to this day. At the hear of each case was the constitutional right of habeas corpus, the right to have one’s detention or imprisonment reviewed in court.

This lesson is aligned with the National Standards for Civics and Government and Common Core Standards. The estimated time of this lesson is two 50-minute classes.

Download the lesson plan