It is time for us to stop and reassess how we handle terror suspects. We just came close to the worst case scenario with a man who admitted his complicity in the murders of hundreds of people yet was nearly cleared of all charges.
Ahmed Ghailani was the first Guantanamo prisoner to be tried in a civilian court -- in New York, no less, just a short distance from ground zero where other extremist Muslims killed thousands of Americans on September 11th -- and it didn't go so well. The Obama administration had insisted on having the trial in civilian court as a sort of proof to the rest of the world of America's moral superiority, our transparency and sense of fair play. But the end result to this test case was a near disaster.
To everyone's shock Ghailani was found not guilty of 284 counts of murder and conspiracy to murder and he came T-H-I-S close to being acquitted altogether. During deliberations a juror asked to be removed, the defense, which claimed Ghailani was a mere dupe in a larger terror plan and was really only interested in watching cartoons, asked for a mistrial. It was denied and Ghailani was ultimately found guilty of only one lesser charge of conspiracy to destroy U.S. buildings and property stemming from the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
The jury largely bought the cartoon defense. This would never have happened with a military tribunal.
In case you've been living on the moon, Ghailani is the defendant who confessed -- twice -- to helping blow up our embassies. After the bombings he fled to Pakistan and was rewarded by his Al Qaeda masters with a position as Osama Bin Laden's personal bodyguard, cook and document forger. He was described as an "extremely valuable asset" and his CIA handlers reported that they were able to extract very valuable intelligence from him.
The major reason Ghailani nearly walked free from this ill placed prosecution can be traced to the judge's adherence to civilian court rules. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan decided to disallow two crucial items from the trial: Ghailani's confessions to the CIA and pending testimony from a man named Hussein Abebe who volunteered to tell the jury that he was the one who sold Ghailani the TNT used in the deadly Tanzanian truck bombing outside the U.S. Embassy. Judge Kaplan ruled the damning testimony would not be allowed because the CIA learned of Abebe's identity during Ghailani's disallowed confession. Experts agree those technicalities would never have happened had the proceedings been held before a military tribunal.
After this week's stunning verdict we must put all our politics aside. Please. This debate about what to do with terrorists isn't about President Barack Obama's policies versus former President George Bush's or even Bill Clinton's. (Giuliani's acts of terror were said to have occurred under President Clinton's watch) This is about what's best for America. It is about all of us coming together in a united fashion to decide the best way handle these deadly enemy suspects. It's time for every American to embrace the idea that terrorism is an act of war -- not a mere civilian level crime -- and to demand that war crimes be prosecuted by military tribunals where all evidence can be presented and there's no worry about spilling state secrets in open court. That's the only way to insure true justice. It has nothing to do with proving ourselves to the rest of the world. It's time for America to worry about our own safety -- period.
Look, Ghailani will not roam free anytime soon even with the disappointing verdict. The charge for which he was found guilty carries a minimum penalty of 20 years to life in prison when he's sentenced in January. But what if the jury had completely bought the cartoon defense acquitted him and set him free? Ghailani could have stopped at Ground Zero to spit on the mass grave site on his way back out of town. Imagine the propaganda value Al Qaeda would have with just one photograph of an acquitted Ghailani overlooking the construction site at the World Trade Center.
This verdict should be a chilling shot across the bow of our collective consciousness -- a warning that we better put partisan politics aside and reach a consensus about how to handle the terror suspects our military captures.
Ghailani won't be the last detainee who needs judging -- not by a long shot. Next up are the pending trials of Sheik Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, and four of his accomplices. At last report our U.S. Justice Department has not yet officially decided what to do with these accused terrorists.
Shall we risk it and try them in civilian court as well? I vote an emphatic no. Cue those military tribunals -- and fast.
Diane Dimond can be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com Her latest book is "Cirque Du Salahi" available at Amazon.com.