- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2001

Vice President Richard B. Cheney's revelation, made in an interview with The Washington Times on Tuesday, that President Bush made the decision to try Zacarias Moussaoui in federal court is the clearest sign yet that the administration appears to be reconsidering the very concept of military tribunals for al Qaeda terrorist suspects, which would be a welcome development indeed. By any standard, Mr. Moussaoui would appear to have been a prime example of the sort of terrorist suspect Mr. Bush had in mind when he issued a Nov. 13 executive order authorizing the tribunals. The order said that military authorities could conduct trials in secret, choose counsel for defendants and impose the death penalty by a two-thirds vote. The accused non-U.S. citizens whom the government charges were part of an international terrorist conspiracy to murder thousands of Americans on September 11 would have no right of appeal.
Mr. Moussaoui, a French citizen, appears to have been in the United States illegally when he was arrested in August after behaving suspiciously while applying to attend flight schools in Oklahoma and Minnesota; officials at the Minnesota school contacted the authorities after Mr. Moussaoui told them he had no desire to learn how to take off or land a plane, and that he only wanted to learn how to steer it in flight. When federal agents arrived at the school to investigate, they arrested Mr. Moussaoui for overstaying his visa. While he was in custody, French law-enforcement officials told their American counterparts that Mr. Moussaoui, a suspected associate of Osama bin Laden, was on a terrorism "watch list." The Associated Press reported this week that Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian man convicted in April of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and other U.S. targets on or about Dec. 31, 1999, said he knew Mr. Moussaoui from a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. According to the federal indictment issued against him last week, Mr. Moussaoui, (who faces numerous conspiracy charges which carry the death penalty) was closely linked to Ramzi Binalshibh, a roommate of September 11 conspiracy ringleader, Mohammed Atta. The FBI contends that Mr. Binalshibh had been slated to be the 20th hijacker on that horrific morning.
But Mr. Cheney told The Washington Times that President Bush based his decision not to go the tribunal route with Mr. Moussaoui based on the strength of the pending case and the assessment that an open trial would not compromise national security. "The decision here clearly was not to move Moussaoui over to the military tribunal, but rather to handle him through the criminal justice system," Mr. Cheney said. "That's primarily based on the case against Moussaoui, and that it can be handled through the normal criminal justice system without compromising sources or methods of intelligence."
In truth, it has become increasingly clear that, as criticism of military tribunals mounted from the political left and right alike, the administration had lost any enthusiasm it ever had for the concept. When Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this month, he side-stepped most of the substantive questions about the workings of military tribunals, noting that the Pentagon had been charged with handling the details. But Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said as recently as Dec. 12 that the Justice Department had not even discussed with the Pentagon whether to try Mr. Moussaoui in a military or civilian court. Mr. Wolfowitz, who was doing his level-best to defend tribunals in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that "presumably" the Justice Department's decision to indict Mr. Moussaoui in a civilian court "is an indication that they did not have the problems … of important evidence that might not be admitted under normal rules of procedure, or the problem of relying on classified evidence." Hopefully, the administration will adopt the Moussaoui model in other of the bin Laden terror network cases tried in this country.

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