Charles Krauthammer has declared Holder’s actions “almost criminal.” Senator Lamar Alexander called for Holder to “step down” for failing to distinguish between “terrorists who are flying into Detroit, blowing up planes, and American citizens who are committing a crime.” Rudy Giuliani, who like Holder is a former U.S. Attorney (and should therefore know better), has ridiculed Holder’s decisions to allow Mohammed a fair trial and Abdulmutallab an opportunity to consult with counsel. Dick Cheney has accused Holder of giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.” The list goes on.
Ironically, no useful intelligence was gained from either Padilla or al-Mari while held in military detention. By contrast, Abdulmutallab immediately confessed and provided useful intelligence to FBI agents who questioned him for fifty minutes under the “public safety exception” to the right to remain silent. He is now cooperating extensively with the government in the course of his criminal case. That he was Mirandized and provided with counsel has not prevented him from further cooperating. In federal criminal cases, defendants routinely cooperate in the hope of obtaining a more lenient sentence. A carrot often carries more weight than a stick.
Another important measure . . . in our overall strategy is applying the rule of law to terrorists. Terrorists are criminals. They commit criminal actions like murder, kidnapping, and arson, and countries have laws to punish criminals. So a major element of our strategy has been to delegitimize terrorists, to get society to see them for what they are -- criminals -- and to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against them.
The federal court system is simply better equipped, in most cases, to handle these trials. It has been the venue for international terrorism cases since President Reagan authorized them in the 1980’s, and for other terrorist cases long before that. Federal prosecutors have at their disposal a wide array of criminal statutes, all with very clear sentencing guidelines, which can reach not just the terrorists themselves, but anyone who provides material support for, or who aids and abets, the terrorists. According to a study by NYU Law School, since 2001 U.S. criminal courts have convicted over 150 suspects on terrorism charges, while Bush’s military commissions have convicted just three, two of whom were since released and returned to their native countries while Bush was still president. Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a former al-Qaeda propaganda chief, received a life sentence after he boycotted his military commission trial. The other two, Salim Hamdan, Osama bin-Laden’s former driver and confidante, and David Hicks, an Australian who joined al-Qaeda, served sentences of six months and nine months, respectively (over the time already served in custody), before being returned to their native countries. (For a terrific article on these matters, see Jane Mayer’s recent piece in The New Yorker.)
The express policies of the right-wing Ronald Reagan -- "applying the rule of law to terrorists"; delegitimizing Terrorists by treating them as "criminals"; and compelling the criminal prosecution of those who authorize torture -- are now considered on the Leftist fringe. Merely advocating what Reagan explicitly adopted as his policy -- "to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against" Terrorists -- is now the exclusive province of civil liberties extremists. In those rare cases when Obama does what Reagan's policy demanded in all instances and what even Bush did at times -- namely, trials and due process for accused Terrorists -- he is attacked as being "Soft on Terror" by Democrats and Republicans alike. And the mere notion that we should prosecute torturers (as Reagan bound the U.S. to do) -- or even hold them accountable in ways short of criminal proceedings -- is now the hallmark of a Far Leftist Purist. That's how far we've fallen, how extremist our political consensus has become.
Military commissions do serve an important purpose. We are at war, and for Qaeda terrorists caught on the battlefield who did not commit crimes inside the United States, or who killed American civilians abroad, military commissions are appropriate. But for terrorists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who plotted to murder the innocent on United States soil, federal courts are not only more suitable, they’re our best chance at getting the strongest conviction possible.
…Instead of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed making his case, we will see the full measure of the horror of 9/11 outlined to the world in a way that only methodical trials can accomplish. Historically, the public exposure of state-sponsored mass murder or terrorism through a transparent judicial process has strengthened the forces of good and undercut the extremists. The Nuremberg trials were a classic case. And nothing more effectively alerted the world to the danger of genocide than Israel’s prosecution in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who engineered the Holocaust.