Since May 2009, when President Obama first bowed to Republican pressure on national security issues, and abandoned a plan by White House Counsel Greg Craig to rehouse on the US mainland a couple of cleared prisoners at Guantánamo who were at risk of torture if repatriated, it has been apparent that no principles are sufficiently important to the administration that officials won’t jettison them the moment that critics start howling.
After this first success with the cleared prisoners — blocking entry to the US for the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, who had been cleared for release by a US court — Republicans, and, to a lesser extent, dissenters within Obama’s own party, realized that the power to shape national security issues was in their hands, particularly when the magic word “Guantánamo” was invoked.
As a result, when a young Nigerian, apparently recruited in Yemen, tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009, and the critics howled that no Yemenis in Guantánamo should be released, the President didn’t point out that this was unacceptable, and was, moreover, a call for him to endorse a policy of “guilt by nationality.” Instead, he immediately capitulated, imposing a moratorium on the release of Yemenis from Guantánamo that still stands 15 months later, and that, single-handedly, undermined the President’s own promise to close the prison.
A similar success for Obama’s critics took place after Attorney General Eric Holder announced on November 13, 2009 that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks would face a federal court trial in New York, on the same day that he announced that five other men would face trials by Military Commission at Guantánamo.
Although this announcement went down well initially, with most of the complaints coming from critics of the Commissions — myself included — who were dismayed that Obama and Holder had brought the much-criticized military trial system back from the dead, a cynical backlash soon started against the proposed federal court trial for the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators. This was orchestrated by Keep America Safe, an organization founded by 9/11 widow Debra Burlingame, rightwing pundit William Krystol, and Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, which might, more appropriately, have been called “Keep America Afraid.” However, it succeeded in its mission, because, predictably by now, when the critics’ complaints were loud enough, Obama again backed down, effectively shelving the plans, and leaving Holder looking foolish.
Nevertheless, the Attorney General at least maintained some principles. Aware of the significance of the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators, Holder told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker last February that he was “determined not to capitulate on the idea of holding a 9/11 trial.” Mayer’s report continued:
“I don’t apologize for what I’ve done,” he told me at one point. “History will show that the decisions we’ve made are the right ones.” Holder said that he regarded trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a courtroom as “the defining event of my time as Attorney General.” But, he added, “between now and then I suspect we’re in for some interesting times.”
Those “interesting times” have seen Holder’s boss make no effort to fight back against his critics, so that, by the end of last year, supporters of Guantánamo in Congress were so emboldened, and so certain that Obama would do nothing to oppose them, that they inserted provisions into an important military spending bill explicitly prohibiting the administration from bringing Guantánamo prisoners to the US mainland to face a trial — specifically mentioning Khalid Sheikh Mohammed by name, in case anyone missed the point.
When the bill was passed, Obama could have vetoed it and fought to remove the offending provision, or he could, more contentiously, have issued a signing statement refusing to accept it, but predictably he did neither, meaning that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-accused would either remain in Guantánamo without facing a trial at all, or that the President would accept that he had been bullied into putting them forward for trial by Military Commission.
Announcing the bullying option on Monday, Eric Holder did not even bother to disguise his disappointment. He began by explaining that, when he had examined the best option for the trial in 2009, he had done so with an open mind, and had concluded that “the best venue for prosecution was in federal court.” He added, pointedly, “I stand by that decision today,” and then provided a compelling defense of the federal court decision:
[W]e were prepared to bring a powerful case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four co-conspirators — one of the most well-researched and documented cases I have ever seen in my decades of experience as a prosecutor. We had carefully evaluated the evidence and concluded that we could prove the defendants’ guilt while adhering to the bedrock traditions and values of our laws. We had consulted extensively with the intelligence community and developed detailed plans for handling classified evidence. Had this case proceeded in Manhattan or in an alternative venue in the United States, as I seriously explored in the past year, I am confident that our justice system would have performed with the same distinction that has been its hallmark for over two hundred years.
Holder then proceeded to condemn Congress for interfering in the decision for political reasons, generously citing the President’s complaint that these “unwise and unwarranted restrictions undermine our counterterrorism efforts and could harm our national security,” but primarily expressing his own dismay far more eloquently, and inadvertently revealing how, in contrast, nothing that relates to Guantánamo is of particular importance to Obama, who has not spoken with conviction on the topic since becoming President:
Decisions about who, where and how to prosecute have always been — and must remain — the responsibility of the executive branch. Members of Congress simply do not have access to the evidence and other information necessary to make prosecution judgments. Yet they have taken one of the nation’s most tested counterterrorism tools off the table and tied our hands in a way that could have serious ramifications.
Although Holder proceeded to express faith in the Commissions as a system capable of delivering justice, his preference for federal courts was apparent, as he launched into a passionate defense of federal court trials, which was prompted by “a number of unfair, and often unfounded, criticisms.” This was probably a reference to the way in which Republican critics tried to make political capital out of the federal court trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the only Guantánamo prisoner brought to the US mainland (in May 2009), whose recent conviction and life sentence was portrayed by critics as a failure, because the judge barred the use of evidence derived through the use of torture (as he is required to do by law), and because the jury threw out all but one of the 285 counts against Ghailani.
In his defense of the federal court system, Holder wrote:
[F]ederal courts have proven to be an unparalleled instrument for bringing terrorists to justice. Our courts have convicted hundreds of terrorists since September 11, and our prisons safely and securely hold hundreds today, many of them serving long sentences. There is no other tool that has demonstrated the ability to both incapacitate terrorists and collect intelligence from them over such a diverse range of circumstances as our traditional justice system.
In conclusion, Holder lamented that the 9/11 case “has been marked by needless controversy since the beginning.” As he proceeded to explain, “the prosecution of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his co-conspirators should never have been about settling ideological arguments or scoring political points,” but should “always [have] been about delivering justice for [the] victims of [9/11], and for their surviving loved ones. Nothing else.”
This is another poor day for justice, in an administration that has been marked by an absence of good news when it comes to dealing appropriately with national security issues. Eric Holder deserves only faint praise overall, because of the way in which he was evidently involved in sheltering Bush administration lawyers from prosecution for their involvement in the “torture memos” of August 2002, and for his failure to oversee the Guantánamo habeas legislation, which has proceeded as aggressively as if Bush was still in power. On the 9/11 trial, however, and through his obvious exasperation with a political climate in which terrorism — when related to Guantánamo — is shamelessly played by political opportunists or seized upon by rightwing ideologues who have whipped themselves up into an unseemly frenzy of hysteria and paranoia, Holder at least continues to express a belief in certain principles, however rmuch he has been obliged to ignore them.
Elsewhere in the administration, and particularly in the actions of Barack Obama, who has consistently failed to provide leadership when it is needed, there has not even been a glimmer of recognition that certain principles have been lost, and that, it seems to me, ought to be a cause for great concern as the cheerleaders for Guantánamo — and for the false thesis that terrorists are warriors who must be tried in war crimes trials — score another victory at Obama’s expense.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.