Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed

Last week, the Obama administration annouced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, along with four other suspected members of al Qaeda will be transferred from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to New York City to face trial in civilian court. Interestingly, however, Obama has not decided to use the civilian courts for all of the Guantanamo detainees; five more face trial by military commission, largely because their crimes were more directly pursuant to military operations:

Holder also announced that five other detainees held at the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will be sent to military commissions for trial. They were identified as Omar Khadr, Mohammed Kamin, Ibrahim al Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Al-Nashiri is an accused mastermind of the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole; Khadr is a Canadian charged with the 2002 murder of a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan. Khadr was 15 years old when he was captured in July 2002.

Additionally, several more will not be tried at all; rather, they will continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

This decision has, of course, outraged many who believe that the decision to try KSM in civilian court is dangerous. John Yoo, the architect of many of the most controversial Bush-era legal decisions, argues in the Wall Street Journal:

Trying KSM in civilian court will be an intelligence bonanza for al Qaeda and the hostile nations that will view the U.S. intelligence methods and sources that such a trial will reveal. The proceedings will tie up judges for years on issues best left to the president and Congress.

Now, however, KSM and his co-defendants will enjoy the benefits and rights that the Constitution accords to citizens and resident aliens—including the right to demand that the government produce in open court all of the information that it has on them, and how it got it.

Prosecutors will be forced to reveal U.S. intelligence on KSM, the methods and sources for acquiring its information, and his relationships to fellow al Qaeda operatives. The information will enable al Qaeda to drop plans and personnel whose cover is blown. It will enable it to detect our means of intelligence-gathering, and to push forward into areas we know nothing about.

This is not hypothetical, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has explained. During the 1993 World Trade Center bombing trial of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (aka the "blind Sheikh"), standard criminal trial rules required the government to turn over to the defendants a list of 200 possible co-conspirators.

In essence, this list was a sketch of American intelligence on al Qaeda. According to Mr. McCarthy, who tried the case, it was delivered to bin Laden in Sudan on a silver platter within days of its production as a court exhibit.

Bin Laden, who was on the list, could immediately see who was compromised. He also could start figuring out how American intelligence had learned its information and anticipate what our future moves were likely to be.

Even more harmful to our national security will be the effect a civilian trial of KSM will have on the future conduct of intelligence officers and military personnel. Will they have to read al Qaeda terrorists their Miranda rights? Will they have to secure the "crime scene" under battlefield conditions? Will they have to take statements from nearby "witnesses"? Will they have to gather evidence and secure its chain of custody for transport all the way back to New York? All of this while intelligence officers and soldiers operate in a war zone, trying to stay alive, and working to complete their mission and get out without casualties.


For a preview of the KSM trial, look at what happened in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker who was arrested in the U.S. just before 9/11. His trial never made it to a jury. Moussaoui's lawyers tied the court up in knots.

All they had to do was demand that the government hand over all its intelligence on him. The case became a four-year circus, giving Moussaoui a platform to air his anti-American tirades. The only reason the trial ended was because, at the last minute, Moussaoui decided to plead guilty. That plea relieved the government of the choice between allowing a fishing expedition into its intelligence files or dismissing the charges.

In response to Yoo and others who have decried Obama's decision, Tommy Crocker of the University of South Carolina's Law School, guest-blogging over Opinio Juris, writes:

Mr. Yoo [does not make] this clear, but [he] seems to rely on a judgment about the nature of the acts perpetrated by terrorists. Are some acts so heinous that by their very nature, they morally “deserve” to be punished by less robust rights-protecting procedures? I can see that for pragmatic purposes, different criminal acts may lead to differing needs to seek punishment in ad hoc tribunals or military commissions which may afford alternative procedures. But to my knowledge special tribunals do not establish differing degrees of rights-protections based on moral judgments about the nature of the underlying criminal acts over which they sit in judgment. Ordinarily, questions of moral desert occur both before and after a trial—in judgments about which acts to criminalize and how severe to punish them—not in decisions about trial procedure itself, nor in decisions about who receives basic human rights protections. Thus, the underlying view is not only that we are engaged in a “new kind of war” facing a new kind of enemy whose very warlike actions are illegal, but those actions are of a kind morally deserving of a lesser legal process.

I think this view mistaken. I also see no reason to think that precluding this type of moral judgment harms national security—quite the opposite. Procedural protections are not, nor should they be, grounded in prior judgments of moral desert. To go down this path is to go down the path of varying human rights protections based on moral judgments about who deserves them. On this score, we make no further distinctions than to say that if anyone deserves them, we all do.

Not surprisingly, I think both of these guys are wrong. Crocker's argument seems a bit bizarre to me. I don't see why or how a moral judgment needs to be part of the equation here. Yoo isn't arguing that members of al Qaeda are inhuman and therefore undeserving of rights and due process; rather, he's arguing that the US is involved in a war with al Qaeda and that different legal codes apply in time of war. People who commit war crimes are not tried in civilian courts; they are tried by military commissions with different legal rights than civilians and under the laws of war which are different than civilian laws. One can argue about whether terrorism of the kind practiced by al Qaeda should be dealt with in a military framework, but Crocker seems to dismiss this argument entirely.

The nature of al Qaeda and its missions do, in my opinion, lend themselves to the military model rather than a civilian legalistic frame. The inter- and trans-national nature of the organization, its efforts to kill large numbers of non-combatants, its frequent targeting of military assets and the difficulties posed by the standard law enforcement models (e.g. its emphasis on procedural justice and ex post, rather than ex ante, actions) are not well suited for a civilian/traditional law enforcement response. That's not to say that law enforcement plays no role, or that the military option is always the proper one. But the US is clearly involved in military operations against al Qaeda and mass terrorism of the kind perpetrated by al Qaeda is much closer to a war crime than it is to murder.

That said, I think Yoo's argument is wrong as well. Well, not so much wrong as problematic. The problem is the poor decisions the Bush administration made in the early days of the war on terror regarding the detainees; decisions in which Yoo was involved as he makes abundantly clear in his memoir War By Other Means: An Insider's Accout of the War on Terror.

As suspected members of al Qaeda began to trickle into Guantanamo Bay (along with hundreds of innocent people handed over to US forces by opportunistic Afghani militants seeking reward money) the Bush administration needed to decide what laws would apply to these people. The choices were civilian law or military law. The Bush administration chose neither.

The selection of Guantanamo Bay as the detention facility was explicitly intended to place the detainees beyond the reach of US civilian courts and laws. Fine. But no one is outside of all law. If individuals seized by US military forces are not to be granted the rights and protections of US civilian law then they must be granted the rights and protections of the laws of war, as embodied in the Geneva Conventions. But the Bush administration sought to deny KSM and his colleagues even these rights.

Following the Geneva Conventions would not have guaranteed KSM protections as a prisoner of war. The Geneva Conventions make it clear that al Qaeda was fighting in violations of the laws of war, and thus not due the protection of POW status and eligible for trial for their actions. All that was needed was an Article 5 hearing to determine status; not guilt, just status. Each detainee needed to be given the opportunity to claim before a competent panel that he was not a member of al Qaeda or that he was fighting in accordance with the laws of war. Once the determination was made that the detainee was a member of al Qaeda and was violating the laws of war, the detainee could be denied POW status and subject to trial by a military commission (Common Article 3 of the Conventions protects the rights of non-POWs by guaranteeing them fair trials).

However, Yoo and the Bush administration sought to have it both ways. They did not want US law to apply, nor did they want the Geneva Conventions to apply. And this kicked off a series of court cases between detainees challenging their status and the administration. If the administration had simply granted KSM and his fellow al Qaeda suspects an Article 5 hearing to determine their status as illegal combatants under the laws of war, we most likely wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. The US would have then been perfectly within its rights under the laws of war to either hold the detainees indefinitely until the end of hostilities or to try them under military commissions. Of course, the argument could still be made that the laws of war were not the appropriate laws to be used. But as it seems that part of Obama's decision to move KSM into the civilian judicial system is to erase the doubts and questions raised by the Bush administration's attempts to escape the law perhaps Obama would have been happy to try KSM under military law as he is doing with Omar Khadr, Mohammed Kamin, Ibrahim al Qosi, Noor Uthman Muhammed and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. In fact, the whole thing might be over by now, as KSM was prepared to plead guilty to a military tribunal late last year.

I certainly understand Obama's desire to make amends for the legal mistakes of the Bush administration, but moving KSM to New York is a risky move. Despite Obama's predictions that KSM will be found guilty and put to death, there most certainly is a risk that KSM will not be given the death penalty (as occurred in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, when one juror balked at handing down a death sentence) or that he won't be found guilty at all for a number of procedural reasons. And Yoo's warnings about the threats to intelligence and counter-terror operations should not be taken lightly either. Military commissions can be both fair and efficient; in fact, in this case I'd assume that KSM would get a more fair trial in a military tribunal than before a panel of American citizens. But the die has been cast; let's hope KSM gets what is coming to him.

1 comment:

Bill Reidway said...

Seth, excellent post, as always - thanks for pointing it out. I have the luxury, perhaps, of not being as well-schooled on these matters as you, but I actually find the question of criminal trials a far simpler question.

If someone commits a crime, and we decide that going to war is necessary response to that criminal activity, that doesn't automatically make that original crime a war crime. Al Qaeda may seem more "warlike" than your average group of thugs or fanatics, given its intents and capabilities, but that's a judgment call, which (to what I believe is part of your point in Restoring the Balance) the country has still only made in a rhetorical sense. Employing that rhetoric may make it easier on the government in some ways, but it doesn't by itself change the nature of the original act. Granting the government the authority to simply apply military policy whenever the military is involved in operations is the wrong precedent. (We don't do this with drug lords, although the military is involved there - how come?) KSM wasn't arrested on a battlefield, he was arrested in a house in Pakistan, for the crime of murdering 3000 US citizens and planning to murder more. He should stand trial for it, and I absolutely love the fact that it's procedurally possible he could get off. I don't want him to get off, obviously, but the system is supposed to be what's great about us. The government doesn't stack the deck, even when it seems eminently entitled to do so. What bugs me is the ongoing rhetoric from the right that assumes because KSM is a Muslim fanatic who wants to kill Americans, he must be some kind of diabolical Batman villain, uniquely positioned to exploit the American justice system for his own nefarious ends, which by itself makes the criminal justice system on American soil too risky. Trust the courts, trust NYPD, trust the Bureau. Every other civilized country does it the way we're doing it right now. KSM doesn't frighten me - the courts have plenty of provisions for protecting information vital to national security, and I'm certainly not scared of him using the trial to spout anti-American propaganda. The trial will speak for itself.

I'm rushing to a meeting now, and didn't know when I'd get a chance to write - hopefully I'll come back to this, and possibly amend/add to these thoughts. Always a pleasure.

Oh, on a different note, I don't understand why John Yoo continues to presented as a disinterested observer to all of the most certain outcomes of this process is the continued exposure of his misdeeds at Justice. Time will tell.