The Obama administration has said it intends to try several of the prisoners now detained at Guantanamo Bay in civilian courts in this country. This would include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and other detainees allegedly involved. The Justice Department claims that our courts are well suited to the task.
Based on my experience trying such cases, and what I saw as attorney general, they aren't. That is not to say that civilian courts cannot ever handle terrorist prosecutions, but rather that their role in a war on terror—to use an unfashionably harsh phrase—should be, as the term "war" would suggest, a supporting and not a principal role.
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The challenges of a terrorism trial are overwhelming. To maintain the security of the courthouse and the jail facilities where defendants are housed, deputy U.S. marshals must be recruited from other jurisdictions; jurors must be selected anonymously and escorted to and from the courthouse under armed guard; and judges who preside over such cases often need protection as well. All such measures burden an already overloaded justice system and interfere with the handling of other cases, both criminal and civil.
Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the places of both trial and confinement for such defendants would become attractive targets for others intent on creating mayhem, whether it be terrorists intent on inflicting casualties on the local population, or lawyers intent on filing waves of lawsuits over issues as diverse as whether those captured in combat must be charged with crimes or released, or the conditions of confinement for all prisoners, whether convicted or not.
Even after conviction, the issue is not whether a maximum-security prison can hold these defendants; of course it can. But their presence even inside the walls, as proselytizers if nothing else, is itself a danger. The recent arrest of U.S. citizen Michael Finton, a convert to Islam proselytized in prison and charged with planning to blow up a building in Springfield, Ill., is only the latest example of that problem.
Moreover, the rules for conducting criminal trials in federal courts have been fashioned to prosecute conventional crimes by conventional criminals. Defendants are granted access to information relating to their case that might be useful in meeting the charges and shaping a defense, without regard to the wider impact such information might have. That can provide a cornucopia of valuable information to terrorists, both those in custody and those at large.
Thus, in the multidefendant terrorism prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and others that I presided over in 1995 in federal district court in Manhattan, the government was required to disclose, as it is routinely in conspiracy cases, the identity of all known co-conspirators, regardless of whether they are charged as defendants. One of those co-conspirators, relatively obscure in 1995, was Osama bin Laden. It was later learned that soon after the government's disclosure the list of unindicted co-conspirators had made its way to bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, where he then resided. He was able to learn not only that the government was aware of him, but also who else the government was aware of.
It is not simply the disclosure of information under discovery rules that can be useful to terrorists. The testimony in a public trial, particularly under the probing of appropriately diligent defense counsel, can elicit evidence about means and methods of evidence collection that have nothing to do with the underlying issues in the case, but which can be used to press government witnesses to either disclose information they would prefer to keep confidential or make it appear that they are concealing facts. The alternative is to lengthen criminal trials beyond what is tolerable by vetting topics in closed sessions before they can be presented in open ones.
In June, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the transfer of Ahmed Ghailani to this country from Guantanamo. Mr. Ghailani was indicted in connection with the 1998 bombing of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He was captured in 2004, after others had already been tried here for that bombing.
Mr. Ghailani was to be tried before a military commission for that and other war crimes committed afterward, but when the Obama administration elected to close Guantanamo, the existing indictment against Mr. Ghailani in New York apparently seemed to offer an attractive alternative. It may be as well that prosecuting Mr. Ghailani in an already pending case in New York was seen as an opportunity to illustrate how readily those at Guantanamo might be prosecuted in civilian courts. After all, as Mr. Holder said in his June announcement, four defendants were "successfully prosecuted" in that case.
It is certainly true that four defendants already were tried and sentenced in that case. But the proceedings were far from exemplary. The jury declined to impose the death penalty, which requires unanimity, when one juror disclosed at the end of the trial that he could not impose the death penalty—even though he had sworn previously that he could. Despite his disclosure, the juror was permitted to serve and render a verdict.
Mr. Holder failed to mention it, but there was also a fifth defendant in the case, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim. He never participated in the trial. Why? Because, before it began, in a foiled attempt to escape a maximum security prison, he sharpened a plastic comb into a weapon and drove it through the eye and into the brain of Louis Pepe, a 42-year-old Bureau of Prisons guard. Mr. Pepe was blinded in one eye and rendered nearly unable to speak.
Salim was prosecuted separately for that crime and found guilty of attempted murder. There are many words one might use to describe how these events unfolded; "successfully" is not among them.
The very length of Mr. Ghailani's detention prior to being brought here for prosecution presents difficult issues. The Speedy Trial Act requires that those charged be tried within a relatively short time after they are charged or captured, whichever comes last. Even if the pending charge against Mr. Ghailani is not dismissed for violation of that statute, he may well seek access to what the government knows of his activities after the embassy bombings, even if those activities are not charged in the pending indictment. Such disclosures could seriously compromise sources and methods of intelligence gathering.
Finally, the government (for undisclosed reasons) has chosen not to seek the death penalty against Mr. Ghailani, even though that penalty was sought, albeit unsuccessfully, against those who stood trial earlier. The embassy bombings killed more than 200 people.
Although the jury in the earlier case declined to sentence the defendants to death, that determination does not bind a future jury. However, when the government determines not to seek the death penalty against a defendant charged with complicity in the murder of hundreds, that potentially distorts every future capital case the government prosecutes. Put simply, once the government decides not to seek the death penalty against a defendant charged with mass murder, how can it justify seeking the death penalty against anyone charged with murder—however atrocious—on a smaller scale?
Even a successful prosecution of Mr. Ghailani, with none of the possible obstacles described earlier, would offer no example of how the cases against other Guantanamo detainees can be handled. The embassy bombing case was investigated for prosecution in a court, with all of the safeguards in handling evidence and securing witnesses that attend such a prosecution. By contrast, the charges against other detainees have not been so investigated.
It was anticipated that if those detainees were to be tried at all, it would be before a military commission where the touchstone for admissibility of evidence was simply relevance and apparent reliability. Thus, the circumstances of their capture on the battlefield could be described by affidavit if necessary, without bringing to court the particular soldier or unit that effected the capture, so long as the affidavit and surrounding circumstances appeared reliable. No such procedure would be permitted in an ordinary civilian court.
Moreover, it appears likely that certain charges could not be presented in a civilian court because the proof that would have to be offered could, if publicly disclosed, compromise sources and methods of intelligence gathering. The military commissions regimen established for use at Guantanamo was designed with such considerations in mind. It provided a way of handling classified information so as to make it available to a defendant's counsel while preserving confidentiality. The courtroom facility at Guantanamo was constructed, at a cost of millions of dollars, specifically to accommodate the handling of classified information and the heightened security needs of a trial of such defendants.
Nevertheless, critics of Guantanamo seem to believe that if we put our vaunted civilian justice system on display in these cases, then we will reap benefits in the coin of world opinion, and perhaps even in that part of the world that wishes us ill. Of course, we did just that after the first World Trade Center bombing, after the plot to blow up airliners over the Pacific, and after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
In return, we got the 9/11 attacks and the murder of nearly 3,000 innocents. True, this won us a great deal of goodwill abroad—people around the globe lined up for blocks outside our embassies to sign the condolence books. That is the kind of goodwill we can do without.
Mr. Mukasey was attorney general of the United States from 2007 to 2009.