Tag: benjamin wittes

Domestic Military Detention Isn’t Necessary

I make the case that domestic military detention for all terrorism suspects isn’t necessary in this piece over at the Huffington Post. Legislative proposals by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would mandate military detention instead of criminal prosecution for all those suspected of international terrorism. I oppose this policy change for reasons both principled and practical:

If the civil rule of law handles terrorist threats adequately, then invoking military jurisdiction is a counterproductive overreaction.

That was the case with one of the handful of domestically detained enemy combatants, Ali al-Marri. Al-Marri was an honest-to-goodness Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student. The FBI indicted him on charges that could have carried a 115-year maximum sentence. The government requested that the judge dismiss its charges with prejudice, meaning that they could not be levied again, and moved him to a naval brig.

The Supreme Court ultimately agreed to hear al-Marri’s case, but the government mooted the case when it removed al-Marri from military custody and charged him with material support of terrorism. Al-Marri pleaded guilty and received a sentence of eight years and four months.

Al-Marri’s case was a missed opportunity. The government should have put him away for life.

This isn’t the first time McKeon and McCain have proposed treating all terrorism suspects like al-Marri and Jose Padilla. I criticized a similar proposal a year ago, as did Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution. Wittes’ criticisms of this year’s bad ideas are here and here. Given the excellent track record of federal courts in prosecuting terrorism cases and the recent death of bin Laden, now is not the time to roll back the civil rule of law.

Ghailani Gets Life without Parole

In November, a New York jury found Al Qaeda bomber Ahmed Ghailani guilty on only one of 285 charges for his role in the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings. I called it “a good outcome” for a number of reasons, largely agreeing with Ben Wittes.

I’ve disagreed with Wittes on lawfare issues before, but he and Chesney are right on this case: (1) the defendant will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail, possibly life; (2) it’s not certain that the military commissions would have allowed evidence obtained by coercion (Charlie Savage also made this point in his article for the New York Times), (3) the conspiracy conviction in civilian court is solid on appeal, but not necessarily so in a military commission (conspiracy is not a traditional law of war violation, and three sitting Supreme Court justices have questioned its application in that forum); (4) the forum of conviction is less ripe for attack in courts of law and public opinion.

As it turns out, getting convicted on one of 285 serious charges still gets you a serious sentence… life without parole. Regardless of what Andy McCarthy and Marc Thiessen think, chalk this up as a win.

The Ghailani Verdict

You’ve probably heard that a jury found Al Qaeda bomber Ahmed Ghailani guilty on only one out of 286 charges associated with the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

A predictable debate followed. Glenn Greenwald cited the outcome as proof that the system works, while Liz Cheney, Debra Burlingame and Bill Kristol described the trial as a reckless experiment. Thomas Joscelyn called the trial a miscarriage of justice.

The most insightful commentary I’ve seen is over at Lawfare. Benjamin Wittes and Robert Chesney summed things up pretty well: “Trial in federal court didn’t work out the way the Obama administration wanted, but it wasn’t a disaster–and we can’t honestly say it worked out worse than the military commission alternative would likely have done.”

I’ve disagreed with Wittes on lawfare issues before, but he and Chesney are right on this case: (1) the defendant will serve a minimum of twenty years in jail, possibly life; (2) it’s not certain that the military commissions would have allowed evidence obtained by coercion (Charlie Savage also made this point in his article for the New York Times), (3) the conspiracy conviction in civilian court is solid on appeal, but not necessarily so in a military commission (conspiracy is not a traditional law of war violation, and three sitting Supreme Court justices have questioned its application in that forum); (4) the forum of conviction is less ripe for attack in courts of law and public opinion.

That’s a good outcome.

Try the 9/11 Conspirators in Both Federal Courts and Military Commissions?

That’s the proposal Benjamin Wittes makes in today’s Washington Post. Wittes says that by splitting the legal baby, by “charging the 9/11 case in both military commissions and federal court,” the Obama administration can satisfy political considerations on both sides of the aisle.

This is a path fraught with legal issues. The constitutional bar against double jeopardy would prevent a trial in one forum and re-trial in the other for the same actions. Wittes spells out his proposal in greater detail in this post at the Lawfare blog, and he acknowledges this risk. The same sovereign cannot try someone twice for the same crime and Wittes acknowledges that the “John Allen Muhammed Model,” named after one of the Beltway snipers, used the separate sovereigns doctrine in ways that do not apply to Guantanamo. The Beltway snipers were liable for separate crimes in Maryland and Virginia in a way that does not translate directly to the 9/11 conspirators.

Wittes recognizes these legal issues and proposes that federal prosecutors and military commissions prosecutors clearly separate the crimes they respectively charge.

I’d go further. The clearest way to make this work is not to “charg[e] the 9/11 case in both military commissions and federal court.” This proposal only works if you charge pre-9/11 conduct in an Article III court and the 9/11 attacks in a military commission.

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment would prevent “charging the 9/11 case in both military commissions and federal court.” Federal prosecutors charged Khalid Sheikh Mohammed well before 9/11 for his participation in the Bojinka Plot, a plan to blow up airliners over the Pacific Ocean. To the extent that he and other 9/11 co-conspirators can be charged with crimes related to Bojinka or other pre-9/11 attacks, this would pass constitutional muster. Otherwise, this is a not an advisable course of action.

Where Double Jeopardy is a concern, the broad sweep of Material Support of Terrorism (MST) charges works against the government, not for it. If an MST charge is used in federal court in anything 9/11-related, the defendants have an excellent case that it bars any charges related to that attack in a military commission and vice versa. MST charges don’t even belong in a military commission, as Assistant Attorney General David Kris warned Congress before it revised the commissions with the Military Commissions Act of 2009. So if you’ve got MST on your mind, best to keep it in a civilian court. The Court of Military Commissions Review is getting ready to weigh the validity of MST in the commissions in the case of Ali al Bahlul, so stay tuned.

The Double Jeopardy bar in prosecuting before a military commission and then in a civilian court is also grounded in first principles. When Benedict Arnold betrayed General Washington and the fortifications at West Point, he escaped. His co-conspirators did not. British Major John André was tried and hanged by a military commission. Joshua Hett Smith, a citizen of New York and citizen of what would become the United States, was likewise tried by a panel of military officers. The panel found insufficient evidence to convict him. The prosecution failed to establish that he knew the true object of André’s meeting with Arnold, and might have reasonably believed that he was ferrying a British officer to negotiations with an American officer without knowledge of Arnold’s betrayal. When Smith transferred to a local jail, the civilian grand jury found that he could not be tried for treason for the actions that previously subjected him to a military trial; his protection from Double Jeopardy stood firm.

Keep in mind, I’m not endorsing Wittes’ plan. Wittes has a lot of “creative” ideas that I think are destructive of the liberty we’re trying to protect. He says in his book, Law and the Long War, that the “psychological Rubicon” of preventive detention is something “we simply need to cross.” Count me opposed, as I said in this post. But it’s worth noting that, before anyone gets too excited about a bipartisan compromise, there are serious issues with two sets of trials for KSM and the rest of the 9/11 co-conspirators.