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Liberty Balance

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CIVIL liberties and the war on terrorism still are in an uneasy coexistence a half year after Sept. 11. So far, the Bush administration seems sensitive to the idea that ensuring the nation's freedom from terror does not require a self-inflicted erosion of freedom, or basic rights and other foundations of democracy.

But critics have had to hound the administration on this point, especially with a president so determined to win the war on the battlefront and to capture terrorists in the US.

The latest case in point is the Pentagon's revised rules, announced last week, for the military tribunals that will try Al Qaeda or Taliban members seized abroad.

Reassuringly, the revisions were in response to criticism that the original proposals for the tribunals were so outside normal legal protections that they would hurt the cause for freedom globally.

The main purpose for the tribunals is to avoid putting judges and witnesses in jeopardy of retaliation, and to ensure secrecy for the methods of gathering intelligence in the ongoing war. Civilian courts can't always do that. But the revised rules also go a long way toward diminishing concerns about inquisitorial justice in closed settings. The rules include press coverage (though proceedings may be closed when classified material is being aired), provision of counsel for all defendants, and the requirement that guilt be established beyond a reasonable doubt.

There's still room for criticism. For example, appeals are limited to a review panel appointed by the secretary of Defense. Defendants won't have recourse to independent judges outside the military structure.

Beyond a doubt, however, the rules bring needed elements of fairness. And, as Mr. Bush has noted, the tribunals are "tools" to have available in extraordinary circumstances. There are as yet no accused persons, with cases built against them, ready to go before these courts.

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