Try terror suspects in civilian courts: Al-Qaida types are criminals; we should not accord them the status of warriors
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Pennsylvania's primary election captured the nation's attention as a bellwether for November's midterm vote. For months, candidates sparred about health care and jobs, bailouts and balanced budgets. This week, we are in Pennsylvania to meet with a bipartisan group of congressional candidates to ensure that another important issue is not overlooked this election year: national security.
Recent knee-jerk reactions by some lawmakers to events like the Time Square bombing attempt are part of a dangerous trend to use fear to try to circumvent our nation's core principles and laws. How the United States holds enemy prisoners in our custody, how we treat them, how we gain intelligence from them, and how we try them are serious issues that deserve serious consideration. We must be wary of those who use these issues for political gain, or who hold a finger to the wind of shifting public opinion.
As retired generals who served for years in our armed forces, we believe the decision about how and where to try terrorist suspects is far too important to our national security to be determined based on political considerations.
The goal of terrorist organizations like al-Qaida is to instill fear -- to persuade the public that they are a powerful, unstoppable global threat and the Western world should simply cave in to their demands. They call themselves "jihadists" to give themselves the status of holy warriors. In fact, they are criminals, thugs and mass murderers.
Trial in military courts accords terrorists the status of warriors. Treating terrorists as soldiers instead of criminals supports their claim that their murderous attacks are justifiable acts of war. This is a profound tactical mistake. It dishonors every American who wears our uniform.
Do we really want to legitimize terrorists with the same term we apply to America's sons and daughters? The Guantanamo Review Board's findings, made public Friday, that the vast majority of detainees held at Guantanamo were low-level fighters only further calls into question the wisdom of a military commissions system that elevates defendants by treating them as if they were special.
Fear of terrorism has made the American public susceptible to demagoguery and disinformation -- and misinformation is what is being peddled. The public has been falsely told that federal courts are not as skilled as military commissions or as good at handling classified evidence. That's nonsense.
Despite the word "military," military commissions are not tougher, safer, faster or smarter than federal courts. Just the opposite. Since 9/11, military commissions have yielded only three convictions. In the same period, regular civilian courts have won convictions in over 195 cases involving connections to al-Qaida or its allies.
These include such notorious terrorists as the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, the so-called "20th hijacker," Zacharias Moussaoui, and scores of others who have failed to grab the limelight.
When Congress passed the Military Commissions Act of 2009, it required the commissions to follow the civilian courts' rules for handling classified information. So the distinction between military commissions and federal courts in their ability to protect sensitive information is simply that the civilian courts have nearly 30 years of experience doing so successfully, while military commissions have none.
Military lawyers vehemently oppose the proposal to use the commissions for these reasons and more. We should be listening to them.
Some claim that federal trials will give the 9/11 suspects a soapbox from which to spew their hateful ideology. In fact, it's the judges in military commissions who have at times allowed suspects to rant. Meanwhile, the seasoned federal judge in the Moussaoui case effectively silenced the defendant's anti-American outbursts.
Some in Congress have suggested that it is inappropriate to give the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks the same constitutional rights as an American citizen. Yet military commissions also follow the U.S. Constitution's mandate to treat suspects as innocent until proven guilty. If what some politicians really want are Star Chamber trials with muzzled defendants and predetermined guilty verdicts, then we'd prefer they kept the U.S. military out of it.
Gen. Colin Powell recently said that the military commissions had proved a disappointment and that he had "no problem" with terrorist suspects being given due process in civilian courts here in the United States.
"We have two million people in jail," Gen. Powell said. "They all have lawyers. They all went before the court of law. And they all got hammered."
Our nation doesn't need more legal controversy. The focus of world attention should return to the crimes that were committed against us on 9/11.
A presidential decision to reverse the attorney general and reject civilian trials for terrorists would also send a dangerous message to al-Qaida and its sympathizers worldwide. It would tell Osama bin Laden that we think his followers are so powerful and so terrifying that our justice system, the finest in the world, cannot handle them. Those of us who know the smell of cordite on the battlefield understand that sending such a message violates a basic rule of warfare: Never encourage or empower the enemy.
This week, as we meet with Pennsylvania's congressional candidates, we will urge them to not allow backroom deals and political posturing to dictate national security policy.
We encourage you to do the same. It's important to know whether candidates will support policies that empower the enemy, or will take a stand for the legal principles that have supported and strengthened our nation for centuries.
First Published June 2, 2010 12:00 am