A Half Measure of Justice

November 16, 2009

The Obama administration’s decision to refer a further five GTMO detainees, including self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, for trial federal court in New York City is a small but significant victory for the rule of law.

Carrie Lemack, whose mother was killed on board one the planes flown into the World Trade Center, welcomed the transfer telling the BBC:

“At the end of the day my mother and nearly three thousand others were murdered. And they deserve the right to have a trial of their murders and their families, me, my sister, so many other families of 9/11, deserve our day in court to hold to account those who did these terrible offenses.”

Yet this decision has predictably provoked a backlash from right-wing Republicans who can’t seem to help themselves when the opportunity for fear-mongering presents itself. Indeed, the Republican Party is proving to be one of Osama bin Laden’s most consistent boosters.

Rudy Giuliani was one of many Republican politicians to make the pilgrimage to Fox News to denounce the decision.  The former mayor said that bringing KSM to New York would be “repeating the mistake of history” and he accused the Obama administration of adopting a “pre-9/11 approach” to fighting terrorists.

Rather odd since this is the selfsame Giuliani who hailed the conviction of the aspirant 9/11 hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui in federal court in May 2006 by telling reporters: “The greater value is demonstrating what America is like. America won tonight.” Poor Rudy, he seems a bit confused.

Carrie Lemack and Rudy 2006 have a powerful point, one President Obama himself recently underscored in his eulogy to the victims of the Fort Hood shootings:

“We are a nation of laws whose commitment to justice is so enduring that we would treat a gunman and give him due process, just as surely as we will see that he pays for his crimes.”

Being a nation of laws is no small thing. The rule of law is the foundation on which our way of life is built. It commands respect. Without the rule of law the constitution would, as John J. McCloy famously remarked, be just a scrap of paper.

It is the rule of law that has made America what it is and we set it aside at our peril. That is why the transfer of five terrorist suspects to the federal courts is such a good thing.

It also why the referral of five other cases to the reconstituted Military Commissions is such a mistake. Of particular concern is the referral of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s case. Al-Nashiri is alleged to have been the leader of the successful plot to bomb the USS Cole in 2000, in which 17 US sailors were killed.

The USS Cole bombing occurred prior to the apparent start of the Global War on Terror or the passage of the Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which begs the question of whether or not Military Commissions have any logical jurisdiction over the case. Furthermore, the Cole bombing was investigated by the FBI and federal prosecutors making the federal courts a practical venue as well.

The families of the USS Cole victims have been particularly outspoken in their criticism of President Obama’s national security policies and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in this instance the administration simply decided to sacrifice principle to political expediency.

And that’s the problem. The Military Commissions are political courts. They exist to ensure convictions in cases where there is insufficient evidence to take to a real court. This is not justice and Commission judgments will lack any legitimacy. And once again we will have allowed the unscrupulous fear-mongers among us to undermine American values and hand Al Qaeda another propaganda victory.