4-7-2011By Elisa Massimino
Op-Ed reposted from The Daily News
During the last presidential campaign, Human Rights First arranged meetings for retired American generals and admirals with candidates from both parties. Speaking from decades of battlefield experience, these leaders delivered a simple message to the future commander in chief: Fear is a bad adviser. It led us into the moral abyss of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and made us abandon justice in favor of ad hoc military commissions that are widely viewed as illegitimate. There is only one way out of that mess, they told then-candidate Barack Obama: leadership. Absent leadership, fear wins.
Fear won on Monday, when the Obama administration announced it was withdrawing the indictment pending against alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and scrapping plans for a federal court trial.
Instead, he will face trial in the military commissions at Guantanamo. Attorney General Eric Holder blasted Congress for choking off funding for civilian trials, essentially admitting that he and President Obama were bowing to political realities. But the administration’s failure to work the political angle – both in New York City and on Capitol Hill – contributed to those exact realities.
While Holder and Obama lost this round, they can still prevail. The restriction on federal trials for Gitmo detainees is temporary, and the President remains on record supporting federal trials for some Gitmo detainees. We need to hold him to this conviction.
For starters, Obama can call on Congress to allow the funding restriction to expire in September and should announce his intention to bring other Gitmo detainees to trial here when it does. As Obama himself has pointed out, national security, the rule of law and our national character are at stake. In the struggle against terrorism, do we simply abandon our ideals out of fear and expediency?
Critics claim our courts can’t handle terrorists, but we’ve convicted 400-plus terrorists in federal courts. The legally shaky military commissions at Guantanamo have convicted a mere six, most via plea bargains that resulted in relatively light sentences. Conversely, verdicts in a civilian court would be viewed around the world as legitimate. As Obama himself once said, 9/11 trials are “too important to be held in a flawed military commission system.” He was right.
Civilian trials for 9/11 suspects will demonstrate that we believe in our justice system. As one group of 9/11 families said to Holder, “We are proud of our country and our justice system… Now please let us prove it to all.”
At the same time, Obama must work actively to fight off attempts in Congress that would make the restrictions permanent. Fueled in part by the sense that the President doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, there are proposals in Congress that would not only prevent the closure of Guantanamo, but make its most reprehensible features – indefinite detention, military commissions – the norm.
One proposal would even require that all terrorism suspects – even those picked up in America – be turned over to military custody. Obama must signal unequivocally that he will veto any bill that would cement policies he has pledged to change.
There’s no substitute for leadership on this issue, and it has to come from the top. Without it, we get what we have today: Capitulation to the agenda of fear. The American people, and the families of the victims, deserve better. If the President decides to fight for his vision of national security that upholds our values, he will have an army of people – literally and figuratively – behind him.