The Right Way to Bring Terror Suspects to Justice

November 23rd, 2009

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Originally published in Roll Call.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was in high dudgeon last week when he demanded that Attorney General Eric Holder remember the lessons of the O.J. Simpson trial to illustrate the peril of trying the 9/11 conspirators in civilian court. But the only real similarity between the two trials will be the moniker provided by the media: “trial of the century.”

In reality, the attorney general’s recent decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four other suspected terrorists in federal court for their involvement in the 9/11 attacks is the right call and in the best interest of our national security.

In contrast to the failed record of military tribunals over the past eight years, the most effective, legally sound way of trying, convicting and punishing these suspected terrorists has been and continues to be in federal court.

And yet, the knee-jerk reaction of many conservatives has been to attack the American system of justice and denigrate the competency of law enforcement officials and the courts, seemingly in an attempt to gain political advantage by weakening the Obama administration. Many of the attacks are based on spurious claims that trying these cases in the United States would be a security risk or that the court would be unable to understand the gravity of the case and let the suspected conspirators free on a legal technicality.

Since 1993, the United States has successfully captured and prosecuted hundreds of terrorist suspects, with 216 international terrorists currently held in the United States. Before the 9/11 attacks, the Clinton administration successfully prosecuted Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, in federal court in New York City, resulting in a sentence of life in prison. Omar Abdel Rahman, the “blind sheik,” was prosecuted and convicted in the same court in which the 9/11 conspirators will be tried and also was sentenced to life in prison. Zacarias Moussaoui, the “20th hijacker,” was tried and convicted without incident in a court in Alexandria, Va., in 2006. He, too, is serving life in prison.

After conviction, these terrorists were sent to federal “supermax” prisons, where inmates are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Despite holding a “who’s who” list of terrorists, these prisons have never been the target of a terrorist attack, and no one has ever escaped.

The demonstrated record of federal prosecutors and the courts in carrying out their solemn duty should not be tarnished by unfounded political attacks or undermined by fear-mongering. Having the suspected 9/11 conspirators continue to languish in legal limbo at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, does not strengthen American national security nor enhance our global stature. Trying them in a federal court of law, however, will make us safer, provide much needed closure and demonstrate to the world that the American system of justice endures and will not be compromised in prosecuting terrorists for their murderous acts.

After eight years of empty Bush administration promises about bringing terrorists to justice, we finally have a president and an attorney general with the guts, determination and commitment to the rule of law to actually do it. It’s time to bring the 9/11 conspirators to justice.

Andy Johnson is the national security director at Third Way, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank. He is the former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee and has 26 years of experience in the national security sector. Scott Payne is the senior national security adviser at Third Way.