President-elect Barack Obama plans to close the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay as soon as he is sworn in as president Jan. 20. While specific details of the shutdown still have to be ironed out, aides to Mr. Obama say he plans to transfer some of the 255 alien terror suspects at Gitmo to U.S. jails and prisons to await trial on criminal charges.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama said the United States would be well served by returning to the anti-terror tactics of the Clinton years - trying suspects in court. Mr. Obama suggested that Gitmo was damaging international respect for the United States. By contrast, “in previous terror attacks, for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center [in 1993], we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated.”
If anything, the experience of the 1990s proves just the opposite - that trying terrorists in open court is laden with pratfalls that jeopardize national security.
On Feb. 26, 1993, an al Qaeda terrorist cell bombed the World Trade Center, killing six persons and injuring 1,000. From the beginning, the investigation of the bombing was hampered by the insistence of the Clinton administration on treating it as a law-enforcement problem rather than one of state sponsorship. Senior administration officials rebuffed CIA Director James Woolsey’s efforts to investigate evidence that foreign governments may have been behind the attack. The U.S. government won convictions of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (the “blind sheik”) and members of his terror cell in the bombing of the World Trade Center, conspiracy to bomb the United nations, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and the FBI’s Manhattan headquarters.
Mr. Obama suggests that trying the terrorists in open court did not damage U.S. security. He neglects to mention what took place during the prosecution of the sheik.
During the trial, prosecutors turned over a list of 200 unindicted conspirators to the defense - as the civilian criminal justice system required them to do. Within 10 days, the list made its way to downtown Khartoum, and Osama bin Laden knew that the U.S. government was on his trail. By giving this information to the defense in that terrorism case, the U.S. courts gave al Qaeda valuable information about which of its agents had been uncovered.
In another case, according to then-U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey, there was seemingly innocuous testimony about delivery of a cell phone. That alerted terrorists to government surveillance. They shut down their communication network and intelligence was lost to the government forever.
Giving terrorists access to the U.S. legal system is hardly a cost-free exercise, as a seemingly naive Mr. Obama appears to believe.