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Oct 09 2010

Why have laws at all?

You know they’re guilty, your government said so

Why, then, does the Obama administration seek to prosecute him in federal court? One answer might be that trials permit punishment, including the death penalty. But the Justice Department is not seeking the death penalty against Mr. Ghailani. Another answer is that trials “give vent to the outrage” over attacks on civilians, as Judge Kaplan has put it. This justification for the trial is diminished, however, by the passage of 12 years since the crimes were committed.

The final answer, and the one that largely motivates the Obama administration, is that trials are perceived to be more legitimate than detention, especially among civil libertarians and foreign allies.



But Mr. Ghailani and his fellow detainees at Guantánamo Bay are a different matter. The Ghailani case shows why the administration has been so hesitant to pursue criminal trials for them: the demanding standards of civilian justice make it very hard to convict when the defendant contests the charges and the government must rely on classified information and evidence produced by aggressive interrogations.

A further problem with high-stakes terrorism trials is that the government cannot afford to let the defendant go. Attorney General Eric Holder has made clear that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the 9/11 plotter, would be held indefinitely in military detention even if acquitted at trial. Judge Kaplan said more or less the same about Mr. Ghailani this week. A conviction in a trial publicly guaranteed not to result in the defendant’s release will not be seen as a beacon of legitimacy.

The government’s reliance on detention as a backstop to trials shows that it is the foundation for incapacitating high-level terrorists in this war. The administration would save money and time, avoid political headaches and better preserve intelligence sources and methods if it simply dropped its attempts to prosecute high-level terrorists and relied exclusively on military detention instead.

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