By Joe Conason
Preparing for what they hope will be their return to power in Washington, Republican congressional leaders have revived the fear-mongering and flag-flapping used by Karl Rove to win the 2002 midterm elections. Like the former White House deputy, forever known to his boss as “Turd Blossom,” the right-wing strategists on Capitol Hill feel no shame in arousing the basest of emotions among their base.
Now when the Republicans insist that they are the only true patriots, the most fervent defenders of the Constitution and the sharpest counterterror strategists, however, those hysterical claims should be tested against the facts with calm and candor.
The first instance is the controversy over the upcoming trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, indicted for plotting the Sept. 11 terror attack along with four accomplices and slated for trial in a federal courthouse, and the decision to prosecute “underpants bomber” Umar Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant.
Leaving aside the logistics and costs of any public trial—because the city of New York will remain the most tempting target for jihadists no matter where any trial occurs—Republican critics charge the Obama administration with compromising national security.
That complaint would deserve more respect if only they had voiced the same concerns when the Bush administration was pursuing precisely the same course of action. But as partisans whose only purpose is to undermine their political adversaries, regardless of the effect on American prestige and national security, these roaring elephants were as silent as little mice back then.
Even coming from Washington’s habitual hypocrites, all the sudden outrage over trying terrorists in court is over the top—and a blatant insult to every right-wing rube they expect to rally behind them.
As reporter Jane Mayer explains in the current issue of The New Yorker, despite all the tough talk about “enemy combatants” and military commissions, the Bush administration almost always indicted terror suspects as criminals and tried them in federal courts. Statistics compiled by New York University’s Center on Law and Security show that since 9/11, the criminal justice system has convicted around 150 suspects on terrorism indictments, and dozens more on broader national security violations. That contrasts with only three Guantánamo detainees, apprehended overseas, who have been convicted in military commissions at the island prison camp.
Among the civilian defendants sent to prison for life were Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who tried to bring down a civilian passenger jet, much like Abdulmutallab, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th conspirator of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“When the Bush Justice Department obtained these convictions,” Mayer notes, “the process was celebrated by some of the same people” who are now assaulting the patriotism and judgment of Attorney General Eric Holder for his efforts to do the same thing.
She quotes Rudolph Giuliani, who said after the Moussaoui conviction: “I was in awe of our system. It does demonstrate that we can give people a fair trial.” Simply because a Democrat now occupies the Oval Office, no doubt the former New York mayor will be deployed between now and November to denounce the very thing that he held in awe.
But Giuliani was right. A fair trial is the American way. A fair trial is what the Constitution provides for every criminal suspect apprehended on our soil, at the very least—which is why the Bush White House, knowing that the courts would uphold those traditional liberties, decided to honor them despite its authoritarian leanings. A fair trial is the way to prove that we aren’t afraid of al-Qaida and that, when captured, its members will be held accountable by the civilization they wish to destroy.
Our public officials take an oath to uphold the Constitution because that is the best way to protect the nation. From its first days, the Obama administration has sought to fulfill that pledge with a combination of judicial prosecutions and military force, with indictments and aerial drone strikes.
The prosecutions have forced several defendants to cooperate, including Abdulmutallab, and the drones—albeit at a terrible cost in civilian casualties—have badly disrupted al-Qaida. Whatever the wisdom of Obama’s policies, he is honestly trying to protect both the country and the Constitution. It is too bad the same cannot be said of his unscrupulous adversaries.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.
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