Sunday, May 06, 2012

Credit Where It's Due

They will never receive any credit, but George W. Bush and his advisers deserve our lasting thanks for deciding to hold terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, and conducting their trials through military tribunals, instead of a federal courtroom.

The wisdom of this approach was on display yesterday, during the arraignment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, and two other senior Al Qaida figures.  According to The New York Times (and other media accounts), the proceedings were a study in confusion and obfuscation, as the defendants did their best to delay and disrupt the arraignment hearing:

"Khalid Shaikh Mohammed fingered his long, henna-dyed beard and stared down in silence on Saturday, pointedly ignoring a military commissions judge asking in vain whether the self-described architect of the Sept. 11 attacks understood what was being said and whether he was willing to be represented by his defense lawyers.

Minutes later, Ramzi bin al Shibh, another of the five detainees arraigned on Saturday as accused conspirators in the attacks, stood, knelt and started praying. Later, he shouted at the judge that he should address their complaints about prison conditions because “maybe you are not going to see me again.”

“Maybe they are going to kill us and say that we have committed suicide,” he added.

One defendant, Walid bin Attash, was wheeled into the courtroom in a restraint chair for reasons that were not disclosed.

Amid disruptions both passive and aggressive, the government’s attempt to restart its efforts to prosecute the five defendants in the long-delayed Sept. 11 case got off to a slow and rocky start in a trial that could ultimately result in their execution."

After hours of jostling over procedural issues, all five defendants deferred entering a plea. The judge set a hearing date for motions in mid-June; the trial is not likely to start for at least a year.  

Now, imagine this little tableau taking place in a federal courtroom in lower Manhattan, before a phalanx of reporters, with dozens of TV live trucks and huge crowds clustered outside.  It would be a made-for-the-media spectacle, dominating the headlines for days.  Every outburst, every contrived comment from the defendants would be instant gist for the pundits and analysts, giving Al Qaida a free platform they have long craved.

And, lest we forget, this was how the Obama Administration planned to try terror suspects until a rare moment of common sense intervened, and the White House decided to stick with military tribunals.  Instead of a global stage, KSM and his fellow killers will have to make due with pool coverage from a handful of reporters at Gitmo.  Instead of a battery of ACLU lawyers, they have a small defense team which they may (or may not) cooperate with.  And instead of a federal judge trying to ride herd over a legal circus, the Al Qaida defendants have a no-nonsense military judge, Colonel James L. Pohl.

Of course, the antics that unfolded yesterday at Gitmo were utterly predictable.  We've often stated that the long trial of the so-called "20th Hijacker" (Zacarias Moussaoui) was a template for court proceedings against other Al Qaida figures.  It took the federal government almost four years to convict the defendant, amid proceedings that were, at times, both frustrating and bizarre, reflecting Moussaoui's attempts to frustrate the legal process.

Because Moussaoui was captured by U.S. agents on American soil, his trial in federal court was dictated by law.  But KSM and the terrorists at Gitmo were nabbed overseas, and with their designation as combatants, military tribunals became the most viable option.  The prosecution of Al Qaida terrorists at Gitmo will likely drag on for years, but without the media circus that terrorists crave and in a secure environment.  Security costs for a trial in a New York federal court were pegged at $300-500 million a year, with the interruption to normal traffic and commerce costing millions more.

President Obama, who "officially" launched his re-election bid this weekend, has tried to blame his predecessor for everything that's wrong with the country.  It would be refreshing (and completely uncharacteristic) if he would--just once--give George W. Bush credit for making the right call.  On the issue of trying terror suspects, Mr. Bush was correct in opting for military tribunals, and the wisdom of that approach will be affirmed in the months and years that follow.        

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