- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

As the Obama administration began its test case of prosecuting a Guantanamo detainee in federal court, advocates and lawmakers remained sharply divided about whether the move helps or jeopardizes national security.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani pleaded not guilty Tuesday at a federal courthouse in New York on charges that he participated in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Mr. Ghailani has been under indictment since 2001.

He was captured in 2004 and has been at the detention center at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since 2006. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Mr. Ghailani is the first Guantanamo detainee to have his case transferred to a civilian court, part of the Obama administration’s pledge to close the facility by next year.

The president has said that closing the detention center and moving its roughly 240 detainees will improve relationships with U.S. allies and deprive al Qaeda of a powerful recruiting tool, but a recent poll shows a majority of Americans disagree with him.

A USA Today/Gallup poll from last week shows that Americans opposed closing the Guantanamo prison by a 2-1 margin and opposed prisons in their home states accepting terrorism suspects by more than a 3-1 ratio. The poll surveyed 1,015 people.

“By moving a terrorist into the federal prison and court system, the president is blatantly ignoring the demands of Congress and the American people, who want a policy and procedure in place for what to do with the detainees before bringing them into the United States,” said Kirk S. Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole and a senior military fellow at Military Families United. “It sets a dangerous precedent by potentially forcing the deliberate release of classified information and leaves the prosecuting attorney vulnerable to losing this case.”

House Republicans have shared those concerns, even going so far as to propose a law that would require the federal government to receive a state’s permission before transferring a detainee there.

“This is the first step in the Democrats’ plan to import terrorists into America,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said in a statement. “Without a plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the administration has made the decision to begin transferring these terrorists into the United States, in spite of the overwhelming opposition of the American people and serious questions from members of Congress of both parties. … Just what is the administration’s plan for closing this prison?”

The Justice Department sought to allay those fears Tuesday by noting that four of Mr. Ghailani’s co-defendants have already been tried in federal court and have been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The department also reports holding 216 terrorists in federal prisons.

“The Justice Department has a long history of securely detaining and successfully prosecuting terror suspects through the criminal justice system,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, “and we will bring that experience to bear in seeking justice in this case.”

Civil-liberties groups praised the move, saying Mr. Obama is trying to prove that U.S. courts can handle these kinds of cases. But they said they’re still worried by Mr. Obama’s plan to let some detainees be held indefinitely without trial or release.

“What remains to be seen, and what will be the true test of adherence to constitutional principles by the Obama administration, is how the remaining terrorism suspects will be handled,” said Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project. “If even one is entered into a policy of ‘prolonged detention,’ as suggested by President Obama last month, our nation’s commitment to the rule of law will not be realized.”

Human Rights First, an organization that recently completed a lengthy report that concluded terrorism cases can be prosecuted effectively in federal courts, similarly praised the move, saying that “if repeated, this demonstration of confidence in our federal courts will make our country more secure.”

“I think that what this demonstrates is that the federal courts are the right place to bring terrorist cases,” said Devon Chaffee, advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, who also noted the convictions of Mr. Ghailani’s co-defendants. “The courts are equally capable of handling Mr. Ghailani’s case.”

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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