By William Fisher
The U.S. Government’s decision to bring five high-profile terror suspects to the United States to face trials in a civilian court is triggering reactions that continue to bounce from praise to condemnation to confusion.
While human rights advocates are generally applauding the decision to conduct trials in federal court in New York they are at the same time strongly criticizing the Justice Department for keeping the Military Commissions in place to try some suspects.
There appears to be confusion about how the government is making its decisions about which courts to choose for which defendants. This process remains unclear despite prolonged media questioning of Attorney General Eric Holder at his press conference at the Justice Department on Friday.
Holder announced at that press conference that five suspects allegedly involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, would be tried in New York, while five others would be tried before Military Commissions.
The New York trials would include that of the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
And at a partisan political level, members of congress and other Washington heavyweights are either praising Attorney General Holder’s decision or labeling it as handing a victory to Al Qaeda while raising dire security risks for U.S. neighborhoods.
Said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, “This decision is further evidence that the White House is reverting to a dangerous pre-9/11 mentality -- treating terrorism as a law enforcement issue and hoping for the best. We need a real strategy for fighting and winning the war on America's terrorist enemies that includes an effective, credible, and consistent plan for all terrorist detainees.'
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell echoed the same theme. He said, “This misguided decision is based on the false belief that the terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans in one day on U.S. soil are common criminals -- not war criminals. But there are needless risks from this decision: classified information can be inadvertently leaked, as it was in the first World Trade Center trial; our cities will face enormous security problems; and our communities will be potential targets for attack.''
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, former Democrat elected in 2006 as an independent, said, “The terrorists who planned, participated in, and aided the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks are war criminals, not common criminals. Not only are these individuals not common criminals but war criminals, they are also not American citizens entitled to all the constitutional rights American citizens have in our federal courts. [They] should therefore be tried by military commission rather than in civilian courts in the United States.''
Other politicians appeared to waste no time locating a camera to respond to Holder’s decisions. On her Facebook page, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.
In a Friday post titled, "Obama Administration's Atrocious Decision," Palin wrote: "Horrible decision, absolutely horrible. It is devastating for so many of us to hear that the Obama Administration decided that the 9/11 terrorist mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be given a criminal trial in New York. This is an atrocious decision."
She expressed concern that the alleged mastermind "may walk away from this trial without receiving just punishment because of a 'hung jury' or from any variety of court room technicalities. If we are stuck with this terrible Obama Administration decision, I, like most Americans, hope that Mohammed and his co-conspirators are convicted. Hang ‘em high."
President Barack Obama, on an Asian trip, said in Tokyo, “This is a prosecutorial decision as well as a national security decision. Here's the thing that I will say: I am absolutely convinced that Khalid Sheik Mohammed will be subject to the most exacting demands of justice. The American people will insist on it and my administration will insist on it.''
Families of those who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks also expressed mixed emotions about the New York trials.
Military Families United, a Washington D.C. based advocacy group, said, “This decision is a victory for those who perpetrated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, not the American people. . . The Sept. 11 accomplices will now receive many of the same constitutional rights and privileges as ordinary Americans.''
But families represented by Kristin Breitweiser, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center attack and who helped push for the establishment of the 9/11 Commission, says New York is ready. She says she plans to attend the trial as often as she can.
“I think New Yorkers are certainly more than capable of handling it. And I think, again, it speaks to the very heart of who we are, not only as New Yorkers, but as American citizens. You know, if a crime is committed on our soil, you are going to be given a trial. You will be given access to an attorney. You'll be innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York said, "It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site where so many New Yorkers were murdered."
Numerous human rights leaders and legal scholars have weighed in with opinions on the Holder decision, and have focused largely on the continuing role of military commissions.
Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and a lecturer at Stanford University Law School, told IPS, “Continuing to rely on military commissions to try those otherwise unable to be convicted on strained and novel ‘war crimes’ charges (that don’t meet the usual definitions of war crimes), by contrast, proceeds from the politically popular but legally inappropriate and counterproductive ‘endless global war on terror’ mindset that has clearly been so destructive to actual national security. The fraudulent nature of the latter process is evident in the unwillingness of the new administration, like the Bush administration, to say that it will release those acquitted or whose danger remains suspected but unproven.”
Another critic of the military commission system is Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. David Frakt, who served as a military defense counsel to a Guantanamo detainee.
He told IPS, “Military commissions are wholly unnecessary. There are virtually no examples of true war crimes committed by detainees during the armed conflict that started after 9/11. Almost all the offenses relate either to pre 9-11 activity and involve material support to terrorism, conspiracy and terrorism. These offenses can be effectively tried in federal courts.” Frakt now teaches law at Western State University in California.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, Guantanamo became for many a worldwide symbol of U.S. lawlessness and brutality in the treatment of prisoners. The system of justice set up there was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times. Many of the unlawful acts committed at Guantanamo were later found at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and in other U.S. detention facilities. Despite multiple military investigations, no senior American was ever charged or convicted of wrongdoing.