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Enemy combatant question tests Obama

From NBC's Pete Williams
We may know later today whether the U.S. Supreme Court will take up one of the biggest unanswered questions in the war on terror: Can the government pick up people in the United States and declare them enemy combatants?

If the court agrees to hear this case, it will set up an immediate test for the Obama administration, which will catch this hot potato, forcing it to decide whether to follow the Bush administration course or set a new direction.

The case involves a man from Qatar who came to study in the U.S., but civil liberties groups -- and several federal judges -- say the same legal principle could be applied to U.S. citizens.

Ali al-Marri arrived in Peoria in September 2001, with his wife and five children, to do graduate work at Bradley University. In December, he was charged with credit card fraud and possession of false ID's.  Then in 2003, a month before he was to stand trial, President Bush declared al-Marri an enemy combatant and an al Qaeda agent. Since the day he was seized -- June 23, 2003, al-Marri has been held at the U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C.

Lawyers challenged the government's authority to pick up people on American soil and detain them indefinitely, and the lower courts have divided over the issue. But in the most recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled 5-4 that the president can detain people in the U.S., including American citizens, indefinitely without charge.

If the Supreme Court agrees to take up this case, it would probably hear it in late February or March. The Bush Justice Department has steadfastly defended the power to declare people in the U.S. enemy combatants. So this would be an early and high-stakes test for the Obama administration.

*** UPDATE *** The Supreme Court today took no action on the case.