For far too long, the national discussion around how and where to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other suspected 9/11 conspirators has been wrongly framed as a partisan dispute. It is simply wrong to believe that national security issues pit Democrats against Republicans, conservatives against progressives, or even, as one recent blog described it, some conservatives against other conservatives.
The Constitution Project's work demonstrates without a doubt that, when it comes to national security and related constitutional issues, thoughtful people of all political stripes can, and have, come together to support sensible positions that will keep us all safe as well as free.
These people know that our country's national security should remain above politics. Unfortunately, however, with the upcoming congressional elections, some are using it to make political and partisan attacks.
But what is even more troubling--and could even be more damaging--is the lack of confidence they demonstrated for our traditional, time-tested, criminal justice system and its ability to handle the prosecutions of suspected terrorists. For over 200 years, we have successfully convicted and imprisoned those who have or sought to harm our nation. Now is no time to abandon our constitutional institutions in favor of untested military commissions that have been subject to years of constitutional challenges, and will no doubt continue to be.
Thankfully, this past weekend, we heard a chorus of support from a variety of quarters for federal court prosecutions of KSM and others suspected of the 9/11 attacks. Colin Powell, Secretary of State during the George W. Bush administration and, before that, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had this to say on CBS's Face the Nation:
"In eight years the military commissions have put three people on trial. Two of them served relatively short sentences and are free. One guy is in jail. Meanwhile, the federal courts, our Article III, regular legal court system, ha[ve] put dozens of terrorists in jail and they're fully capable of doing it. So the suggestion that somehow a military commission is the way to go isn't born out by the history of the military commissions."
General Powell continued:
"I have no problem with them being tried here in the United States. We have two million people in jail. They all have lawyers. They all went before the court of law and they all got hammered. We have got three hundred terrorists who have been put in jail not by a military commission but by a regular court system. And so I think we ought to remove this incentive that exists in the presence of Guantanamo to encourage people and to give radicals an opportunity to say, you see, this is what America is all about. They're all about torture and detention centers."
And President George W. Bush's first Attorney General, John Ashcroft, voiced his support for federal prosecutions in an interview with the Huffington Post at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. As Sam Stein reports:
"[T]he former Bush administration official said that there are 'a variety of tools that ought to be available to an administration' in its efforts to curb terrorism and bring terrorists to justice.
"Asked specifically about holding civilian trials for terrorists, he said such a venue 'has use and utility.'"
These statements should not be shocking to anyone following the debate over these issues. There has long been broad bipartisan support for utilizing our time-tested federal courts to prosecute suspected terrorists.
The Constitution Project, along with Human Rights First, has issued Beyond Guantanamo: A Bipartisan Declaration, signed by nearly 140 prominent Americans from across the political spectrum who have called on the Obama administration and Congress to support a policy for closing Guantanamo that is consistent with our constitutional principles and also ensures our country's security. Signers include former members of Congress, diplomats, federal judges and prosecutors, high-level military and government officials, as well as national security and foreign policy experts, bar leaders, and family members of 9/11 victims. They support prosecution of terrorism suspects in traditional federal court, rather than by military commission, and oppose indefinite detention without charge.
It is long past time for our elected officials to stop political posturing on these and other vital issues relating to our constitutional system of government. In the most difficult times, we should enhance our commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law, rather than descend into games of political bravado about who is "tougher" on national security.