Slaiman Abu Ghayth pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring to kill Americans Friday in a brief appearance in New York federal courtroom. The presence of bin Laden’s son-in-law, who serves as a spokesman for al Qaeda, in New York City just blocks from where the World Trade Center towers were demolished — is reigniting a fiery debate over whether terrorists should be tried in civilian court or military commissions.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the decision to try Mr. Ghayth in New York demonstrates “a stubborn refusal” to hold additional terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay facility and could impede intelligence collection.
The intelligence team that located Osama bin Laden, Mr. McConnell said, relied on information gathered through the interrogation of detainees. Right now, the nation’s intelligence community is trying to locate al Qaeda’s new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and do everything they can to disrupt potential terrorist attacks.
“Our intelligence community and military are laboring to understand the structure, threat and communications methods of al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, North Africa and the growing threat of Al Nusra front within Syria,” he said. “They deserve the same access to intelligence and methods of defeating the enemy available to the team that found bin Laden.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest refuted any notion that intelligence gathering had been hampered by the decision to try Mr. Ghayth in New York.
“With all due respect, that’s not the assessment of the intelligence community,” he said, referring more specific questions about the Mr. Ghayth’s interrogations to Justice.
The White House said the intelligence community, as well as the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department all agree that prosecuting Mr. Ghayth in civilian court is the best way to protect the country’s national security interests.
“[Civilian courts] have shown that there are, in many ways, a more efficient way for us to deliver justice to those who seek to harm the United States of America,” Mr. Earnest said. “And that is the consensus view of the president’s national security team and of agencies all across the federal government.”
The decision not to send Ghayth to Guantanamo Bay earned high marks from Mr. Obama’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, although members of the New York delegation who strenuously objected to trying previous terrorism suspects in Manhattan in the past, were noticeably silent on the issue.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, applauded the decision, saying federal prosecutors have had “tremendous success” in convicting al Qaeda terrorists.
“In contrast, it is not clear whether a conspiracy case against Abu Ghayth could even be sustained in a military commission at Guantanamo Bay,” he said. “Sending another detainee to Guantanamo would have been a serious mistake, and it is clear to me that President Obama and his national security team made the right choice.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, is particularly incensed over the Justice Department’s decision to begin civilian proceedings against the suspected terrorist without notifying Congress.
“Rather than issuing doomsday predictions about sequestration, the president should be notifying Congress that he’s planning a U.S. civilian court trial for a terrorist who took credit for 9/11 and is on video threatening to blow up more U.S. buildings and planes,” he said.