After Ahmed Ghailani was found guilty of participating in a conspiracy to bomb two U.S. embassies in November, a conviction that could land him life in prison (his sentencing hearing is scheduled for January), the usual slate of right-wing pundits took to the airwaves, eager to denounce President Obama for trying the suspected terrorist at all.
Liz Cheney declared that the guilty verdict "signals weakness in a time of war."
John Yoo said prosecutors were "lucky to even get one conviction," adding that "It is really hard to see what the upside is to having civilian trials."
And Laura Ingraham, sitting in for Bill O'Reilly on Fox, called trying terror suspects in federal court "insane," "wrong" and "potentially dangerous."
Never mind that no one even remotely connected to the Ghailani trial could ever point to a single security problem the case created. And that military commissions have meted out far lighter sentences -- two and eight years in the two most recent plea bargains -- than have civilian federal judges.
But in Washington, it matters neither how insane the criticisms nor how suspect the messengers. Simply the intimation that lawmakers are somehow being soft on security is enough to send them all scurrying.
As a result, Congress is now considering (and expected to pass this week) an omnibus spending bill that includes a provision that would block all further transfers of Guantanamo detainees to the United States -- even for trial or imprisonment.
But wait, it gets worse. It turns out the provision wasn't slipped into the bill by some extreme right-wing representatives eager to embarrass the Obama administration and make it impossible for the president to keep his promise to close the Guantanamo prison.
Attorney General Eric Holder criticized the Gitmo transfer ban when the House included it in its spending bill last week. But where's the President? Obama has supported federal court trials in the past, and the proposed ban would represent a serious encroachment on the executive's ability to exercise prosecutorial discretion. It would also eliminate an important tool in the Administration's counter-terrorism strategy. But so far, President Obama has been silent.
If the ban passed, it would be a huge win for publicity-hungry fear-mongerers, whose claims fly in the face of the facts. It would also be a huge step back in national security.
Congress -- and the Administration -- should be embarrassed.
First, the facts: civilian courts have convicted more than 400 terrorists since September 11, 2001 -- as opposed to only five convictions in the military commissions. As important, they are experienced, legitimate courts governed by laws and rules carefully drafted to ferret out the facts and convict the guilty. Military commissions, by contrast, operate with judges and prosecutors with little to no experience prosecuting terrorism, and are based on a law that's vulnerable to constitutional challenge. The alternative -- no trial at all, as some are advocating -- risks keeping innocent people locked up in prison indefinitely, ensuring growing animosity toward the United States, a loss of cooperation from our allies, and ultimately presenting a grave danger to our national security.
Indeed, when it comes to national security, senior military leaders, who presumably know more about it than Rush Limbaugh, have been saying for years now that it's in our national security interest for experienced criminal prosecutors to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and try suspected terrorists in civilian federal courts.
Army General David Petraeus has said the U.S. military is "beat around the head and shoulders" with images of detainees held in Guantanamo.
Former Secretary of State General Colin Powell calls Guantanamo "a major, major problem," and advocates to "move [the detainees] to the United States and put them into our federal legal system."
Former Brigadier General James P. Cullen has said about the 9/11 defendants that the government should "bring them before a forum about which there is going to be no issue about the fairness of the trial or the procedures or the transparency if in fact these guys are convicted."
And Former Rear Admiral John D. Hutson has criticized the "irresponsible rhetoric about the threat and the dangers and the incapacity of federal courts to handle these cases," and hoped that safe and successful federal trials like Ghailani's would "enable us to get on with it at a much faster pace than we've done up to now where we've just sat around sort of wringing our hands and saying 'oh woe is us, this is too hard for us to handle.' "
Unfortunately, that's the pathetic stance Congress and the White House appear to be taking now. It would almost be funny that lawmakers give more credit to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Liz Cheney and a lineup of alarmist Fox News anchors than to their own retired senior military leaders -- but only if the consequences weren't so serious.
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