The 9/11 Hearings at Guantanamo Bay Have Been a Fiasco
Illegitimate military commission trials breed more enemies and cause more terrorism
March 12, 2013
Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's case clearly belongs in a civilian U.S. court. It's unfortunate that some lawmakers have used this case to whip up hysteria and champion the failed experiment that is the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
I watched Abu Gaith's arraignment in the federal courthouse in Manhattan on Friday. It was a model of fairness and efficiency. In just 17 minutes, Judge Lewis Kaplan, a no-nonsense federal judge with decades of experience handling complex criminal conspiracy cases, read the charges against Abu Ghaith, explained his rights, assigned him lawyers, recorded his "not guilty" plea, and explained how the court would handle classified material. Abu Ghaith has reportedly already shared significant information with federal officers.
By contrast, the pretrial hearings of the five alleged masterminds of the 9/11 attacks taking place in Guantanamo Bay have been a fiasco. The arraignment alone took 13 hours and was like watching a circus. The defendants alternately ignored the bewildered military judge, yelled at him, prayed on the floor, fashioned paper airplanes, and threatened to commit suicide. It was hardly a proceeding that inspired confidence in the United States's ability to bring to justice the five alleged masterminds of the worst terrorist attack ever carried out on U.S. soil. I can only imagine how the victims' families felt watching this spectacle.
Since the 9/11 attacks, nearly 500 suspects—including 67 captured abroad—have been convicted in U.S. federal courts on terrorism-related charges. Many are serving life sentences. Alternatively, the Guantanamo Bay military commissions have convicted only seven people. Three of those have been released and two convictions have been reversed on appeal. Those rulings from a Washington, D.C. court of appeals call into question the legitimacy of any future prosecutions at Guantanamo for "material support" for terrorism or "conspiracy" to kill Americans—Abu Ghaith's alleged crime. In federal court, there is no question those charges could land him in prison for life.
U.S. national security is far better served by fair and serious prosecutions of alleged terrorists than by their indefinite detention on an offshore military base in contravention of the most basic principles of the U.S. Constitution and international law. Indefinite detention—or an illegitimate military commission trial—only breeds more enemies and more terrorism. That does us all an injustice.