Rule Of Law Hinges On Obama’s Response To The Ghailani Trial

Ahmed Ghailani

To listen to certain Republican critics of last week’s verdict in the federal court trial of the Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former Guantánamo prisoner and a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” you would think that the jury had found him not guilty, and that he had been released onto the streets of New York.

In fact, after deliberating for five days, the jury found him guilty on one count of conspiracy to destroy US property and buildings, which carries a mandatory 20-year sentence, although the judge in his case, Judge Lewis Kaplan, can decide that a life sentence is appropriate.

Why, then, did Representative Peter King (R-NY), who is poised to become the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in January, exclaim, “This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantánamo terrorists” in federal civilian courts?

The reason is naked ideology, of a very damaging kind, as Rep. King revealed in the comment that followed. “We must treat them as wartime enemies,” he said, “and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo.”

For Rep. King and his fellow Republicans, who were queuing up to damn President Obama for his imperceptible failure, the naked truth is that they would have been even more dissatisfied if the jury had convicted Ghailani on the other 284 counts on which they found him not guilty, as it would have made it more difficult for them to attempt to justify their obsession with treating Ghailani — and all the other prisoners in Guantánamo — as “warriors” in the “War on Terror” launched by the Bush administration, for whom federal court trials are ideologically unsuitable.

Such is the blinkered obsession of these critics that they actively want information derived from torture to be used in the trials of alleged terrorists, and they blame Judge Kaplan for upholding the law by excluding from the trial the government’s alleged “star witness,” a Tanzanian named Hussein Abebe, whose name was revealed by Ghailani while he was being subjected to torture in a secret prison run by the CIA — part of a network of secret prisons in which he was held for two years and two months, after his capture in Pakistan in July 2004, until his transfer to Guantánamo, with 13 other alleged “high-value detainees,” in September 2006.

To these critics, it is irrelevant that information derived through the use of torture was excluded by Judge Kaplan because such information can never be used in federal court — and because the use of torture is a crime under domestic US law — just as it is irrelevant that Hussein Abebe’s testimony may also have been suspicious, as Marcy Wheeler pointed out in two articles on FireDogLake.

Nor, bizarrely, do they care that experts with deeper knowledge of the Commissions have pointed out that a military judge in a trial by Military Commission would also have excluded evidence derived through the use of torture, or that the Commissions themselves have a dismal record when it comes to successful prosecutions, having secured just five verdicts since their revival nine years ago: three through plea deals (in the cases of David Hicks, Ibrahim al-Qosi and Omar Khadr); one, in the case of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, after a trial in which the military jury threw out a charge of conspiracy; and another, in the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who produced a propaganda video for al-Qaeda, after a one-sided trial in which al-Bahlul refused to mount a defense.

With the exception of al-Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence (although this is being appealed), all these supposed victories have perished under scrutiny: in 2007, Hicks was freed almost immediately, to serve just seven months in Australia; Hamdan received a sentence of five and a half years, but the judge decided it included time already served, and he was a free man after just five months; al-Qosi, a sometime cook for al-Qaeda, is expected to serve two years; and Omar Khadr’s plea deal means he will be freed from Guantánamo in a year, with seven years ahead of him in a Canadian prison.

Also irrelevant to these advocates of torture and bent trials is the fact that federal courts have an enormously successful track record of prosecuting terrorists, and that the fate of Ghailani’s alleged co-conspirators in the 1998 bombings provides a salutary lesson regarding these successes, providing a ringing endorsement of federal court trials for terrorists, and — along the way — also providing a damning repudiation of the extralegal novelties of the “War on Terror.” Rather than being diverted into a network of secret prisons run by the CIA, where torture was making an ill-advised renaissance, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-’Owhali, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh and Wadih el-Hage were interrogated by FBI officials without the use of torture, were successfully convicted in a federal court in New York in May 2001, and were sentenced to life without parole in October 2001 — when the “War on Terror” had already begun.

All of the above is supposedly irrelevant to critics of the verdict in Ghailani’s trials because these cheerleaders for the Commissions — and for the use of information derived through the use of torture — want to ignore reality and return to the world envisaged by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington in November 2001, when they first revived the Military Commissions, intending that they would be able to launder information derived through torture, and sentence supposed terrorist suspects to death without anything remotely resembling due process.

This is the system which, although still a second-rate system of justice, reserved for foreigners regarded as terrorist suspects, or as “alien unprivileged enemy combatants,” who are not allowed to raise arms against US forces under any circumstances, has been amended over the years, after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal in June 2006, demolishing Cheney’s dream so that information derived through the use of torture is banned, as it is in federal court trials. As a result, the only essential difference between the Commissions and federal court trials is that the military judges in the former can use their discretion to decide whether or not to allow the use of information that may have been derived through coercion rather than torture.

This may have made a difference in Ghailani’s case, but it seems unlikely, given the Commissions’ track record, that it would necessarily have led to a harsher sentence than the one Ghailani will receive after his federal court trial. In addition, it is worth considering that Ghailani’s trial took place with barely a mention of his treatment in secret CIA prisons or in Guantanamo, when the precedents from the Commissions indicate that military defense lawyers may have fought more tenaciously to raise it as an issue.

Once it becomes apparent that critics of the verdict in Ghailani’s trial are actually seeking a return to the lawless fantasy land envisaged by Dick Cheney and David Addington, and believe — contrary to the evidence — that US law is soft and useless, it also becomes apparent that the silence of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in response to these complaints is deeply troubling.

The Obama administration needs to put down those who are insulting US law through the prism of their own warped ideology, or there is no telling where the rot will stop. Fortunately, for now, few critics have rallied behind a small group of other critics — Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, Jack Goldsmith, former Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and law professor Robert Chesney — who have taken another troubling unconstitutional line, suggesting that Congress should enact legislation to hold terror suspects indefinitely without even bothering to think about putting them on trial.

However, without decisive action in support of US law and the Constitution on the part of the government, it may be that the idea of avoiding trials altogether for terrorist suspects will gain in strength. In this, Wittes, Goldsmith and Chesney may find that they are encouraged, disturbingly, by the Obama administration itself, which has already endorsed indefinite detention without charge or trial for 48 of the remaining 174 prisoners in Guantánamo, on the advice of the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which was established by President Obama last year to review the cases of the remaining prisoners.

Moreover, in its apparent paralysis regarding trials either in federal court or by Military Commission for 34 prisoners (who were recommended for trial by the Task Force), the Obama administration is close to finding that it has enshrined indefinite detention without charge or trial as official US policy unless it acts immediately to put other Guantánamo prisoners on trial in federal court — starting, I suggest, with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks, whose federal court trial was announced by Eric Holder almost exactly a year ago.

If senior officials believe in the ability of federal courts to try terrorist suspects, they need to find the courage to say so, to say so boldly and with a courage that has been sadly lacking, and to follow through on their beliefs without caving in to criticism from opponents whose entire point of view is fueled by blind vengeance and a thorough disdain for the law.

Originally published on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at

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