Trying bin Laden kin as civilian
The capture of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, on Feb. 28 in Jordan reignites a debate over President Barack Obama's preference for civilian over military trials for terror suspects.
Abu Ghaith, husband of bin Laden's oldest daughter, Fatima, was charged on Friday with conspiring to kill Americans over propaganda videos in which he warned terror attacks against the United States rivaling those of Sept. 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people. A not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf.
The arguments for trying Abu Ghaith in civilian court boil down to the following:
n Deeming him an enemy combatant is difficult to justify in his case, given that U.S. officials believe he has not played a significant role in several years, partially because his role in al-Qaida has been limited since 2002 (he was under house arrest in Iran starting that year before fleeing to Turkey, where he was tracked down by the CIA, and then being arrested by the FBI in Jordan late last month);
n The conspiracy charge itself, which implies mere closeness to al-Qaida's past plots, not continuing threats to the U.S. and its citizens;
n His lack of knowledge of al-Qaida operations; and
n A 22-page statement he gave after his arrest, during which prosecutors believe they gained all the intelligence about al-Qaida that Abu Ghaith might have to offer.
The decision also reflects a policy priority of Obama's that is not shared by Congress: the closing of the military holding facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
And it is a priority that the president appeared to have conceded to Congress in 2012, while he still faced the voters.
Last year, for example, the administration decided that confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shikh Mohammed and four alleged accomplices will be prosecuted before military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, not in New York federal court.
Now, apparently, the recently re-elected president feels freed from both precedent and wise policy and has decided to try Abu Ghaith in civilian court.
Treating Abu Ghaith like a mere criminal, rather than an enemy of the United States, both minimizes his crimes and potentially diminishes his value to the U.S. effort to fight the war on terror.
"Al-Qaida leaders captured on the battlefield should not be brought to the United States to stand trial," Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, told MSNBC after Abu Ghaith's arrest. "We should treat enemy combatants like the enemy. The U.S. court system is not the appropriate venue."
While Abu Ghaith might not be familiar with al-Qaida's operational plans, his knowledge of the terror network's inner workings, and particularly its dealings with Iran, could be extraordinarily valuable. Considering that Iran appears to be an emerging nuclear power, this knowledge could be of vital importance to guiding U.S. foreign policy.
The war on terror is not mere law enforcement. While criminals are sometimes violent, the differences between even the most vicious domestic criminals differ from al-Qaida in significant ways: Al-Qaida operates from foreign soil, sometimes with the help of foreign governments; the terror network has declared war on the United States and al-Qaida has proven its ability to kill thousands of Americans and has expressed a desire to obtain weapons of mass destruction with the goal of killing many more.
For these reasons, it was the military, not law enforcement, that was chosen to track down Osama bin Laden, keep the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan, and it is why the war on terror is not being waged by federal prosecutors.
The president should stick with the formula that has been successful in preventing another serious terrorist attack, rather than making it his second-term agenda to unravel a successful approach that he lacked the will to change before he faced the voters in November 2012.
The president should stick with the formula that has been successful in preventing another serious terrorist attack.