The Rule of Law in the US Hangs on Obama’s Response to the Ghailani Trial


To listen to certain Republican critics of last week’s verdict in the federal court trial of the Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former Guantánamo prisoner and a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” you would think that the jury had found him not guilty, and that he had been released onto the streets of New York.

In fact, after deliberating for five days, the jury found him guilty on one count of conspiracy to destroy US property and buildings, which carries a mandatory 20-year sentence, although the judge in his case, Judge Lewis Kaplan, can decide that a life sentence is appropriate.

Why, then, did Representative Peter King (R-NY), who is poised to become the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in January, exclaim, “This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama Administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantánamo terrorists” in federal civilian courts?

The reason is naked ideology, of a very damaging kind, as Rep. King revealed in the comment that followed. “We must treat them as wartime enemies,” he said, “and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo.”

For Rep. King and his fellow Republicans, who were queuing up to damn President Obama for his imperceptible failure, the naked truth is that they would have been even more dissatisfied if the jury had convicted Ghailani on the other 284 counts on which they found him not guilty, as it would have made it more difficult for them to attempt to justify their obsession with treating Ghailani — and all the other prisoners in Guantánamo — as “warriors” in the “War on Terror” launched by the Bush administration, for whom federal court trials are ideologically unsuitable.

Such is the blinkered obsession of these critics that they actively want information derived from torture to be used in the trials of alleged terrorists, and they blame Judge Kaplan for upholding the law by excluding from the trial the government’s alleged “star witness,” a Tanzanian named Hussein Abebe, whose name was revealed by Ghailani while he was being subjected to torture in a secret prison run by the CIA — part of a network of secret prisons in which he was held for two years and two months, after his capture in Pakistan in July 2004, until his transfer to Guantánamo, with 13 other alleged “high-value detainees,” in September 2006.

To these critics, it is irrelevant that information derived through the use of torture was excluded by Judge Kaplan because such information can never be used in federal court — and because the use of torture is a crime under domestic US law — just as it is irrelevant that Hussein Abebe’s testimony may also have been suspicious, as Marcy Wheeler pointed out in two articles on FireDogLake.

Nor, bizarrely, do they care that experts with deeper knowledge of the Commissions have pointed out that a military judge in a trial by Military Commission would also have excluded evidence derived through the use of torture, or that the Commissions themselves have a dismal record when it comes to successful prosecutions, having secured just five verdicts since their revival nine years ago: three through plea deals (in the cases of David Hicks, Ibrahim al-Qosi and Omar Khadr); one, in the case of Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, after a trial in which the military jury threw out a charge of conspiracy; and another, in the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who produced a propaganda video for al-Qaeda, after a one-sided trial in which al-Bahlul refused to mount a defense.

With the exception of al-Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence (although this is being appealed), all these supposed victories have perished under scrutiny: in 2007, Hicks was freed almost immediately, to serve just seven months in Australia; Hamdan received a sentence of five and a half years, but the judge decided it included time already served, and he was a free man after just five months; al-Qosi, a sometime cook for al-Qaeda, is expected to serve two years; and Omar Khadr’s plea deal means he will be freed from Guantánamo in a year, with seven years ahead of him in a Canadian prison.

Also irrelevant to these advocates of torture and bent trials is the fact that federal courts have an enormously successful track record of prosecuting terrorists, and that the fate of Ghailani’s alleged co-conspirators in the 1998 bombings provides a salutary lesson regarding these successes, providing a ringing endorsement of federal court trials for terrorists, and — along the way — also providing a damning repudiation of the extralegal novelties of the “War on Terror.” Rather than being diverted into a network of secret prisons run by the CIA, where torture was making an ill-advised renaissance, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-‘Owhali, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh and Wadih el-Hage were interrogated by FBI officials without the use of torture, were successfully convicted in a federal court in New York in May 2001, and were sentenced to life without parole in October 2001 — when the “War on Terror” had already begun.

All of the above is supposedly irrelevant to critics of the verdict in Ghailani’s trials because these cheerleaders for the Commissions — and for the use of information derived through the use of torture — want to ignore reality and return to the world envisaged by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal counsel David Addington in November 2001, when they first revived the Military Commissions, intending that they would be able to launder information derived through torture, and sentence supposed terrorist suspects to death without anything remotely resembling due process.

This is the system which, although still a second-rate system of justice, reserved for foreigners regarded as terrorist suspects, or as “alien unprivileged enemy combatants,” who are not allowed to raise arms against US forces under any circumstances, has been amended over the years, after the Supreme Court ruled it illegal in June 2006, demolishing Cheney’s dream so that information derived through the use of torture is banned, as it is in federal court trials. As a result, the only essential difference between the Commissions and federal court trials is that the military judges in the former can use their discretion to decide whether or not to allow the use of information that may have been derived through coercion rather than torture.

This may have made a difference in Ghailani’s case, but it seems unlikely, given the Commissions’ track record, that it would necessarily have led to a harsher sentence than the one Ghailani will receive after his federal court trial. In addition, it is worth considering that Ghailani’s trial took place with barely a mention of his treatment in secret CIA prisons or in Guantanamo, when the precedents from the Commissions indicate that military defense lawyers may have fought more tenaciously to raise it as an issue.

Once it becomes apparent that critics of the verdict in Ghailani’s trial are actually seeking a return to the lawless fantasy land envisaged by Dick Cheney and David Addington, and believe — contrary to the evidence — that US law is soft and useless, it also becomes apparent that the silence of President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in response to these complaints is deeply troubling.

The Obama administration needs to put down those who are insulting US law through the prism of their own warped ideology, or there is no telling where the rot will stop. Fortunately, for now, few critics have rallied behind a small group of other critics — Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, Jack Goldsmith, former Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and law professor Robert Chesney — who have taken another troubling unconstitutional line, suggesting that Congress should enact legislation to hold terror suspects indefinitely without even bothering to think about putting them on trial.

However, without decisive action in support of US law and the Constitution on the part of the government, it may be that the idea of avoiding trials altogether for terrorist suspects will gain in strength. In this, Wittes, Goldsmith and Chesney may find that they are encouraged, disturbingly, by the Obama administration itself, which has already endorsed indefinite detention without charge or trial for 48 of the remaining 174 prisoners in Guantánamo, on the advice of the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which was established by President Obama last year to review the cases of the remaining prisoners.

Moreover, in its apparent paralysis regarding trials either in federal court or by Military Commission for 34 prisoners (who were recommended for trial by the Task Force), the Obama administration is close to finding that it has enshrined indefinite detention without charge or trial as official US policy unless it acts immediately to put other Guantánamo prisoners on trial in federal court — starting, I suggest, with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his four alleged co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks, whose federal court trial was announced by Eric Holder almost exactly a year ago.

If senior officials believe in the ability of federal courts to try terrorist suspects, they need to find the courage to say so, to say so boldly and with a courage that has been sadly lacking, and to follow through on their beliefs without caving in to criticism from opponents whose entire point of view is fueled by blind vengeance and a thorough disdain for the law.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as “The Rule of Law and the Ghailani Case.” Cross-posted on The Public Record, Cageprisoners and Uruknet.

19 Responses

  1. Lawfare › “Blind Vengeance and a Thorough Disdain for the Law” says...

    […] is how the always-entertaining British journalist, Andy Worthington describes critics of federal court trials, including–it seems–Jack and Bobby and me, which is […]

  2. Lawfare › Andy Worthington Responds says...

    […] received the following note from Andy Worthington in response to my earlier post about his article. I appreciate very much his clarifications, which read in relevant part: My intention was not to […]

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are some comments from Facebook:

    Neill Le Roux wrote:

    Thanks for another well written and insightful article Andy.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Brian Devlin wrote:

    Keep shining the light Andy. Wish there were more like you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    John H Kennedy wrote:

    Our Rule of Law actually hangs on whether President Obama gives a damn about it or has the balls to tell Holder to enforce our laws, including those against Torture, and depends on our Gutless Democratic US Reps & Senators to see he does it. Our liberties are in so much danger from these cowards.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Charlotte Dennett wrote:

    Andy, I’m now deep into Bush’s book and it concerns me greatly. Could you please share your comments on my new page, The People v. Bush? I’d like some ongoing commentary from our own experts. I note that Bush referred to Guantanamo as a model prison and lauds it for its “humane treatment.”

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Charlotte also wrote:

    John H. Kennedy: I agree with you 100%. Our liberties are in danger, and Bush’s new book is not helping matters because he has (as expected) rewritten history for the gullible.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, Neill, Brian, John and Charlotte.
    And Charlotte’s page, btw, is here:

  9. Norwegian Shooter says...

    Andy, you nailed it in your response to Wittes this morning:
    1) It was crystal clear that “blind vengeance and a thorough disdain for the law” applied to “senior officials” and not the Lawfare trio.
    2) his return “absurdly credulous of the innocence of just about everyone at the base,” was absurd itself, (does he really think the evidence presented vs. most detainees had a shred of credibility, to say nothing of proof?)
    3) everything comes back to AUMF, Bush’s decision to deny the Geneva Conventions to detainees, and the creation of a new class of prisoners.
    Let’s hope Wittes learns something from the exchange.

  10. Tashi Farmilo-Marouf says...

    Let me get this straight, the US is allowed to start illegal wars (under false pretenses) and expand them to other territories, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that is acceptable. Yet, others are not allowed to raise arms against US forces under any circumstances. Really? And if people do fight back, they risk getting thrown into secret prisons, to be tortured and later given unfair trials.
    Is it any wonder this supposed ‘war on terror’ has not solved a thing.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Norwegian Shooter,
    Thanks for picking up on the Lawfare entry by Ben Wittes, and my response. I was pleased that he posted my reply almost immediately, and that something resembling dialogue is possible (unlike with Republican lawmakers), although I do, of course, wish that he would subject the government’s allegations to scrutiny at least equal in rigor to that applied by federal court judges in the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions.
    And as I made clear, I remain implacably opposed to any new legislation that would follow the AUMF by endorsing detention without charge or trial on the say-so of the government.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Brilliant analysis, Tashi, and very easy to understand why the “War on Terror” has not solved anything.

  13. SeaClearly says...

    In direct relation, Bush’s Supreme (Court) Hypocrisy:

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, SeaClearly. Good to hear from you.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Andy, I think you and Glenn Greenwald have complementary articles that should be posted side by side:
    Greenwald tells critics our justice system wasn’t meant to be a conviction machine. I can agree to that. *sigh* The Obama administration “got their victory”. Critics on the Cheney side are being dishonest, I think.

  16. President Obama Loses the Plot on Guantánamo « Eurasia Review says...

    […] to release 58 cleared prisoners to Yemen because of a moratorium you issued nearly a year ago, and refusing to stand up to critics who oppose federal court trials for men suspected of terrorist activities is not the way to do it. […]

  17. Military Commission Guilty Plea « The Communicator says...

    […] “The Rule of Law in the US Hangs on Obama’s Response to the Ghailani Trial” and re… ( […]

  18. Gvantanamo aizspogulija « socialismslv says...

    […] him of only one count out of 285, was portrayed by the supporters of the Military Commissions as a failure. I mean, if you had not been paying attention, you could think that the man was acquitted. He […]

  19. The Full List of Prisoners Charged in the Military Commissions at Guantánamo | Patriot News II says...

    […] US mainland (in May 2009) for a federal court trial that began in September 2010 and resulted in a conviction on a single charge of conspiracy and a life sentence in January 2011. Despite this, lawmakers have […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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