Tag: KSM

Obama and Military Tribunals

Yesterday, Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, held a press conference and announced that Khalid Shaik Mohammed (KSM) would be prosecuted for war crimes before a military tribunal.   It’s probably fair to say, as some newspapers have noted, that the idea of bringing KSM to New York City to be tried in civilian court for the 9/11 atrocity was Holder’s “signature” decision since becoming attorney general–and that that idea is now dead.    However, Obama and Holder conceded a place for tribunals more than a year ago and they could never really offer a good explanation as to why some persons would go to civilian court and why others would go before tribunals.  Like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, Obama and his people would just sorta decide case-by-case.

Conservatives are chortling over Obama’s apparent embrace of Bush policies, such as keeping Guantanamo open and reviving trials before tribunals.  Like the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, however, Obama has not stumbled on to the correct path.  He has instead shown exceptionally poor judgment yet again.  Two questions are now looming on the horizon.  First, prosecutors are anxious to have a lengthy 9/11 trial, but what if KSM calls the tribunal a farce and decides to skip the trial,  plead guilty, and then demands to be executed so he can become a martyr?  The tribunal might grant the wish, but the legitimacy of the military system may be called into question again–especially in the Muslim world.  Second, the Pentagon has made it pretty clear that anyone acquitted by a tribunal will remain a prisoner at Guantanamo (pdf).  There may be a legal rationale for that, but, again, how is that going to be perceived by the world?   As a start, one might consider how we would react if an American were acquitted by a court abroad, but was nonetheless returned to his prison cell to be detained indefinitely. 

There is no need to go there.  Obama should close Gitmo and transfer the prisoners to Bagram and hold them there, but with full transparency.  The Bush policies of secret prisons, secret interrogation methods, and secret trials before special military courts were wrongheaded and remain so.

For additional background, go here.

The Third Strategic Actor

I agree with Chris Preble’s assessment of Steve Simon’s opinion piece in the New York Times Tuesday. Why We Should Put Jihad on Trial” is animated by a sound understanding of the strategic logic of terrorism. Simon knows that the proper response is outclassing terrorists in terms of ideology and legitimacy. Trying KSM transparently in New York is just, and doing justice is powerful counterterrorism. The procedural and security fears about it are poorly founded.

It’s useful to compare another opinion piece, written with welcome thought and care, but missing a key point about counterterrorism. In “Holder’s al Qaeda Incentive Plan,” Wall Street Journal “Main Street” columnist William McGurn assesses the incentive structure terrorists face if they are accorded the niceties of a trial should they attack civilians in the United States, compared to the rough treatment they would and should expect were they caught attacking U.S. troops on a foreign battlefield.

It’s a troublesome irony, and it’s very smart on McGurn’s part to game out the thinking of terrorists rather than indulging impulses to react as they would have us do. But terrorists are not the actors a trial in New York is most meant to influence.

In her book, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns, U.S. National War College professor of strategy Audrey Kurth Cronin writes:

Most people think of terrorism as a dichotomous struggle between a group and a government. However, given their highly leveraged nature, terrorist campaigns involve three strategic actors—the group, the government, and the audience—arrayed in a kind of terrorist “triad.” More specifically, the three dimensions are the group that uses terrorism to achieve an objective, the government representing the direct target of their attacks, and the audiences who are influenced by the violence.

Similarly, at Cato’s counterterrorism conference, I argued that terrorism seeks to induce overreaction on the part of victim states, driving support to terrorists from their geographical and ideological neighbors. Declining to overreact, and having the discipline to meticulously accord terror suspects fair treatment, dissipates the gains terrorists want and expect: increased support from their neighbors.

This is why a public trial—for all its costs and complexities—is worth doing. It’s to gain advantage with the third strategic actor.

Lowry and Interrogation

Veronique de Rugy put up a post at The Corner referencing Rich Lowry’s defense of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and my response. Rich has since responded.

With regard to the apprehension of Uzair Paracha, an Al Qaeda facilitator in New York, it seems likely that the apprehension of Majid Khan in Pakistan four days after Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s (KSM) apprehension came from material picked up with KSM and not from interrogation. The key here is that when Majid Khan was in Pakistan, Paracha was pretending to be Majid Khan in communications with immigration officials. Detective work was probably what brought this guy under the microscope.

However, I’m willing to lay that aside because, as Rich points out, there is probably more to the story that shouldn’t be declassified. As I said on Bill O’Reilly’s show, we cannot end this argument until we have declassified all of the dead ends we pursued, which has some serious strategic drawbacks. The CIA recently asserted in court that it cannot reveal any more without compromising sources and methods.

Rich also says that my preferred method of interrogation is “dangling the promise of reduced sentences.”

This is not my preferred method, but it is one that ought to be available to interrogators. Under the Army Field Manual, an interrogator cannot promise anything in the court system. As Matthew Alexander points out in his book, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court has the death penalty attached to almost all of what we consider “material support of terrorism.” I am saying that the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an effective tool if a lesser included offense is on the table so that the first to squeal gets a few years and the others get the noose.

But let’s not discount the lawful interrogation techniques. When I attended SERE, the psychological techniques were far more compelling than the physical ones. We were all young and tough, but the mind tricks that turned brothers in arms against each other were downright disturbing.