November 17, 2009 2:37PM

John Yoo on Civilian Trials for Terrorism Cases

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an article by John Yoo that criticized the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and several of his fellow Guantanamo prisoners in civilian court. Yoo makes too many claims for me to respond to in a blog post, but let me address a few.

According to Yoo, “The treatment of the 9/11 attacks as a criminal matter rather than an act of war will cripple American efforts to fight terrorism. It is in effect a declaration that this nation is no longer at war.” That is an odd thing to say for several reasons. First, it is all over the news: We are still very much at war. Second, even if Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, would the United States really be “crippled” in the fight against bin Laden? “Crippled” suggests the U.S. is on the verge of joining Costa Rica or Belize in terms of our military strength. Farfetched. Third, the Bush administration also treated the 9/11 attacks as a criminal matter when it indicted and prosecuted Zacarias Moussaoui in civilian court. Yoo seems to think that that call was mistaken, but did it “cripple” the U.S.? Did the Bush administration, in effect, declare that the U.S. was “no longer at war”? Of course not. So why does Yoo make that claim now? Odd.

Next, Yoo complains that by bringing KSM to New York for a civilian trial, the prisoner will get to “enjoy the benefits and rights that the Constitution accords to citizens and resident aliens.” This is another odd statement because the benefits of a civilian trial (public trial, jury trial, calling witnesses, confronting adverse witnesses, etc) are not limited to citizens and resident aliens. After all, Asian tourists and illegal immigrants from Mexico, to take two examples, are not “citizens” or “resident aliens.” If a federal prosecutor were to accuse them of a crime, they would get a trial in civilian court. A claim that the government could deny, say, a nonresident alien from China a civilian trial would be totally at odds with American constitutional law. Yoo may disagree with that law, but if he does, he should have made that clear because he left a misleading impression.

Third, Yoo calls the Moussaoui trial a “circus” because it provided Moussaoui with a “platform to air his anti‐​American tirades.” Well, to start, just because Yoo calls a trial a “circus” does not make it so. The federal judge in the Moussaoui case did what we would expect a good American judge to do–that is, give the person who is accused of the crime a fair opportunity to speak and to offer a defense. At the same time, the judge must maintain order in the courtroom and anyone who becomes disruptive (including the accused) can be removed. The potential problem of a “tirade” is nothing new and is not, of course, limited to persons who share bin Laden’s twisted worldview. Some recent examples include the Unabomber and the shooter at the Holocaust museum. In short, it is a weak argument to critique our system of civilian trials because the defendant may want to insist on saying something that is unpopular, unpleasant, or incoherent. And, at the time of sentencing, a trial judge can respond, as Judge William Young did when he sentenced Richard Reid to life behind bars.

For more on the subject of military commissions, go here and here. For more on John Yoo, go here and here.