A decidedly unremarkable event by past standards occurred yesterday. The U.S. government brought criminal terrorism charges in a New York City courtroom against a Somali man captured in the Gulf of Aden. This is the first prosecution in criminal court to happen during the Obama administration, but such cases have been a common and extremely successful feature of U.S. policy that passed without notice for decades. This move, however, has provoked the now-typical reaction from conservatives who reflexively oppose every Obama administration action as a radical departure from U.S. norms that threatens the security of the nation. That’s ridiculous, and these conservatives risk U.S. security by pushing to remove a very powerful weapon against terrorists.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was reportedly seized in April onboard a ship in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. He is charged with conspiracy and providing material support to terrorist groups—in this case the Somali-based al-Shabaab and the Yemeni-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
The Obama administration revealed that Warsame was held on a U.S. Navy ship for two months and interrogated by the High-Value Interrogation Group, the team drawn from numerous frontline U.S. government agencies established by the Obama administration specifically to question suspected high-ranking terrorists. This produced significant information outlining a deeper connection between al-Shabaab and AQAP than previously known. U.S. officials reportedly discussed all options for Warsame’s future and unanimously decided on criminal prosecution.
Warsame’s trial in New York City is like many previous instances when individuals were seized abroad and brought to the United States to face terrorism charges in criminal court. The most recent similar case dates from the Bush administration, when Afia Siddique was detained in Afghanistan by U.S. troops in 2008 for attempting to shoot U.S. military personnel. She was quickly brought to New York, convicted, and sentenced to 86 years in prison. During the Clinton administration, Mir Aimal Kasi stood outside CIA headquarters in Virginia in 1995 and murdered two CIA employees as they drove into work. He was captured in Pakistan in 1997 and brought to Virginia for trial, convicted of murder, and executed in 2002.
Neither of these cases or the others like them produced negative responses from conservatives. Once the Obama administration did it, however, conservatives were outraged.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that “Congress has spoken clearly multiple times … of the perils of bringing terrorists onto U.S. soil.”
What perils? There has never been a terrorist attack related to the trial or incarceration of terrorists in the United States.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said, “A foreign national who fought on behalf of al Shabaab in Somali—and who was captured by our military overseas—should be tried in a military commission, not a federal civilian court in New York or anywhere else in our country.”
Forcing all prosecutions of suspected terrorists into military commissions has political appeal because it sounds tougher than using criminal courts. But let’s look closer at that military commission option.
First off, Warsame has been charged only with conspiracy and military support for terrorism. Those offenses are available in military commissions but neither has ever been considered a war crime. For that reason, the Department of Justice believes that convictions on those offenses in military commissions are susceptible to being overturned on appeal.
Further, the extremely short record of military-commissions cases based on conspiracy or material support reveals that those convicted receive short sentences and are quickly transferred back to their home countries and released. The most famous of these cases was that of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, who was sentenced to only five additional months in custody. The Bush administration sent him home to Yemen soon after.
U.S. criminal courts, on the other hand, have an excellent record at convicting terrorists. In a case analogous to Hamdan’s, Ali Asad Chandia was convicted in 2006 of providing material support for terrorism for driving a member of Lashkar-e-Taibi from Washington National Airport to spots around the D.C. area. His sentence was 15 years. So bin Laden’s driver got five months from a military commission but driving an unknown member of a lesser-known terrorist group resulted in a 15-year sentence in a criminal court.
Since the 9/11 attacks, U.S. criminal courts have locked up more than 200 individuals on terrorism charges while military-commissions convictions can be counted on one hand.
American presidents of both parties have relied on criminal courts for decades because they are extremely effective at convicting suspected terrorists and have an excellent record of producing reliable and actionable intelligence information. Today’s conservatives are trying to deny the U.S. government this valuable tool because they are more interested in using political weapons against President Barack Obama than counterterrorism weapons against America’s enemies.
By: Ken Gude, Managing Director of the National Security and International Policy Program, Center for American Progress, July 6, 2011
It’s official. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, will be tried by a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.
He will not be tried in Manhattan in the shadow of the World Trade Center. He will not be tried before the vast majority of the victims’ families. Nor will he be tried in any federal court. Instead, he will be tried offshore in a military commission process established in 2009 and yet to be tested. It is likely that he will be convicted of conspiring to plan and commit the attacks of 9/11 and that, he, along with his four co-defendants, the other 9/11 detainees at Guantanamo, will be given life sentences, if not the death penalty.
For those of us who have fought vociferously for the use of the federal court system to try terrorism suspects, the Obama administration’s decision is, on its surface, a defeat. The numbers make it clear: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 174 individuals have been convicted of jihadi-related terrorism in federal court, an 87 percent conviction rate, according to the most recent figures from the NYU Center on Law and Security terrorist trial report card.
From the early 1990s on, the courts have learned how to handle the challenges of terrorism cases, from classified or tainted evidence to the relevance of al-Qaeda’s strategic and tactical goals. The abandonment of the hard-earned professionalism of the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys is a loss.
But it is not a defeat for justice itself. It is time to give up our long-standing protest and consider the good that can come from these trials — even if they are held at Guantanamo, and even if they are conducted by the military.
In prosecuting Mohammed, we will be trying the individual without whom there presumably would have been no 9/11 attack; the fact that he is secondary to Osama bin Laden in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy does not reduce his guilt. In a sense, he is the Eichmann of the attack, and his trial is no less important than was that of Hitler’s operational director.
Trying Mohammed and his co-conspirators for a crime that took place 10 years ago can only be seen as a positive. It is unfair that the country has waited this long to bring to justice anyone directly linked to 9/11. If part of the purpose of trials is to bring closure to the open wounds that result from wrongdoing, then the trial matters more than the venue, the jurisdiction or even the system itself.
The country’s need for some sort of closure around the Sept. 11 attacks was illustrated in part by the fear of having this trial in Manhattan. Although it is likely that few victims’ families will now be able to watch the proceedings in person, they will know what is happening, and they will be able to achieve some sense of justice and begin to heal.
There is a further benefit. The details of the 9/11 conspiracy remain a mystery to much of the American public. The trial will turn mystery into fact.
At present, we know generally about bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s determination to harm the United States and the failures of U.S. intelligence. But we don’t know details about these five men and their step-by-step intersection with the attacks — details that were outlined in the criminal indictment that was unsealed in New York this past week. The indictment lists the sequence of activities that made up the attacks and highlights the criminality of the conspiracy. Presumably, those facts will be central to the evidence presented at trial at Guantanamo.
The 9/11 attacks were a carefully conceived and coldheartedly implemented plot of immense destruction. They were not the work of men with superhuman powers, as al-Qaeda terrorists are often portrayed. Better knowledge of the story will not diminish the magnitude of the harm, but it will probably diminish the powerful mystique that so often surrounds al-Qaeda. Reducing the organization to flesh-and-blood figures, to individuals rather than a vast and dangerous specter, will be hugely significant in teaching the country that, although al-Qaeda is an enemy that arguably perpetrated the worst crime in American history, it is not invincible.
Admittedly, there are numerous pitfalls that threaten the military commission system. These trials will differ from those in the federal system in several ways. They will rely on a panel of at least five military judges, and the evidentiary standards will not be the same as those in federal court, though it is unlikely that evidence attained by torture will be allowed. There will be broader allowances for hearsay, and access for families to view the proceedings will be more limited.
In addition, there are worries — which would come with any trial — about giving a platform to Mohammed and his ideological pronouncements. Even the possibility of the death penalty is problematic, as he has expressed a desire to be martyred. In addition, the judges must able to keep the defendants and the courtroom under control, and the track record of trials at Guantanamo has fallen well below standards for evidence, legal tactics and courtroom decorum.
The fact is that this trial is going to take place. It’s not ideal. I would have preferred to see the case in the civilian courts. But a military trial is far preferable to the perpetual limbo of indefinite detention without trial — the very definition of Guantanamo.
The trial of Mohammed and his co-conspirators will signify a step forward in the nation’s ability to counter terrorism in a rational fashion. Rather than assume that the proceedings will fall below the standards of federal courts, let’s expect wise judgment in place of retributive justice. Let’s look for an enlightened use of the leeway provided by the Military Commissions Act. Let’s hope that, despite the unique limitations and allowances of that law, the presiding judge will keep this trial as close to the federal standards as possible.
These proceedings, nearly 10 years in the making, are likely to set the precedent for how this country tries terrorism suspects. Although it is outside the federal justice system, this trial could begin to restore the nation’s confidence in its ability to administer justice to even the most vile criminals — a confidence that may one day return trials for detainees in the war on terror to the nation’s long-tested federal courts system.
By: Karen J. Greenberg, The Washington Post, April 8, 2011
Many in the media, and many more of President Obama’s detractors from the left, are hitting his administration pretty hard today for this reversal. The development is obviously disappointing, but if we’re assigning blame, let’s at least direct at those responsible.
In a major reversal, the Obama administration has decided to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for his role in the attacks of Sept. 11 before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and not in a civilian courtroom.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is expected to announce on Monday afternoon that Mr. Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the attacks, and four other accused conspirators will face charges before a panel of military officers, a law enforcement official said. The Justice Department has scheduled a press conference for 2 p.m. Eastern time.
Mr. Holder, who had wanted to prosecute Mr. Mohammed before a regular civilian court in New York City, changed his mind after Congress imposed a series of restrictions barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees into the United States, making such a trial impossible for now, the official said.
Even that last sentence is awkward — the Attorney General “changed his mind” after Congress “imposed a series of restrictions”? That’s a bit like saying I changed my mind about getting up after I was tied to my chair.
Holder told reporters this afternoon that his original decision was still the right one, but blamed Congress for “tying our hands.”
He happens to be right. Even today, Holder wants to do the right thing, and so does President Obama. And yet, Gitmo is open today, and KSM will be subjected to a military commission in the near future, not because of an administration that backed down in the face of far-right whining, but because congressional Republicans orchestrated a massive, choreographed freak-out, and scared the bejesus out of congressional Democrats. Together, they limited the White House’s options to, in effect, not having any choice at all.
There’s plenty of room for criticism of the administration, but those slamming Obama for “breaking his word” on this are blaming the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
By: Steve Benen, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, April 4, 2011