On Wednesday, to the surprise of some spectators in the courtroom, a U.S. federal judge did the right thing: he followed the law.
Judge Lewis Kaplan had a clear choice before him: he could exclude the testimony of a government witness discovered via abusive CIA interrogation of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, or he could allow the government to introduce that testimony, in blatant violation of U.S. law. He chose the former. Ghailani, transferred from Guantanamo Bay to New York last year, is now on trial for allegedly assisting in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
In a U.S. federal court, testimony derived from a coercive interrogation is not admissible. A similar rule applies in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay. Although judges there have more leeway, most military judges are equally principled and take the ban seriously. Torture-derived evidence is inadmissible for two reasons: to prevent U.S. authorities from engaging in torture, and because such evidence is inherently unreliable. International treaties similarly ban its use.
The government knew, of course, that this would be a problem, and it surely has plenty of other evidence against Ghailani or it wouldn't have transferred him to civilian court in the first place. After Judge Kaplan's ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his continued confidence in the case. Notably, four of Ghailani's alleged co-conspirators in the bombings were tried and sentenced to life in prison back in 2001 -- without the use of this particular government witness. Evidence introduced in that trial pointed to Ghailani as well.
Still, since Wednesday, commentators such as Liz Cheney and Jack Goldsmith have seized on Judge Kaplan's ruling to lament not the fact that Ghailani was thrown in a CIA black site for two years and likely tortured (the government refuses to address Ghailani's treatment in this trial but concedes he was "coerced"), but the fact that the judge has excluded the evidence that his interrogators squeezed out of him -- or to claim the administration should never have given Ghailani a trial at all.
"If the American people needed any further proof that this Administration's policy of treating terrorism like a law enforcement matter is irresponsible and reckless, they received it today," announced Cheney after the ruling. Goldsmith, the Harvard Professor and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel Under President Bush, now writing on the new Lawfare blog, wonders "why the government is bothering to try Ghailani." Why not simply imprison him indefinitely?
Coming from Goldsmith, this is particularly disappointing. When he was at OLC, he had the courage to criticize his colleagues John Yoo and Jay Bybee for their twisted legal analysis that allowed them to institutionalize torture as U.S. policy. Now, rather than recalling that error as the source of the problem in Ghailani's trial today, he's criticizing the Obama administration for applying the rule of law at all.
Technically, Goldsmith may be right: the administration could just declare Ghailani an al Qaeda member and ongoing threat and hold him in military detention forever. That's the unfortunate consequence of the "war against al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces," which has no logical end. But as a matter of principle and policy, imprisoning people indefinitely without trial would be a disgrace, along the lines of what Goldsmith's colleagues at OLC sanctioned.
If there's anything the United States stands for -- or used to stand for -- it's that we don't throw people in prison without proof they've done something wrong.
Principle aside, it's just bad strategy. As General Petraeus has acknowledged, winning the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban is as much about winning over the local populations where they live as it is about U.S. military prowess. Throwing Muslims in prison for decades without charge or trial is hardly a good strategy. If, as national security experts tell us, al Qaeda's strategy is to present the U.S. war against terror as a war against Islam, indefinite detention of suspected Islamic insurgents without trial hands al Qaeda its most effective propaganda campaign on a silver platter.
Cheney and Goldsmith may be right that excluding a witness derived by torture will make the government's case against Ghailani more difficult. But in the end, a fair trial for a suspected terrorist in a respected federal court will do far more to defeat al Qaeda and its associates -- and to bolster the image of the United States in the world -- than will foregoing justice altogether.