Federal Courts v. Military Commissions: The Debate Isn’t Over

After last week’s conviction of Bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in Federal Court, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement praising the trial as a demonstration that Federal Court is the proper venue for high-profile terrorism cases. As I cited in a post earlier this week, Holder said of the trial:

“We never doubted the ability of our Article III court system to administer justice swiftly in this case, as it has in hundreds of other cases involving terrorism defendants. It would be a good thing for the country if this case has the result of putting that political debate to rest. This outcome vindicates the government’s approach to securing convictions against not only this particular defendant, but also other senior leaders of al Qaeda.”

In the days after Abu Ghaith’s conviction, however, it has become clear that the debate regarding the proper venue for high-profile terrorism cases is far from over. In an article published today in The New York Times, journalist Benjamin Weiser explores the ongoing struggle the government faces when deciding how to prosecute alleged terrorists. Essentially, the debate boils down to whether these alleged terrorists can be prosecuted fairly in Federal Court, and whether their actions are run-of-the-mill criminal acts, or acts of war. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for example, is quoted as saying “We’re not fighting crime, here, we’re fighting a war,” and continues to argue that alleged terrorists like Abu Ghaith should be interrogated for all possible intelligence prior to a Military Commission, like the detainees at Guantanamo.

While the ultimate outcome of the Federal Court v. Military Commission debate is far from clear, one fact is certain, Attorney General Holder was wrong. While the Abu Ghaith trial certainly serves as an example of a successful civilian trial for a high-profile terror suspect, it has certainly not silenced the debate about the proper forum for these trials. If anything, it has brought the issue to the forefront of our consciousness and once again struck up meaningful conversation regarding the proper place to hold terrorism trials.

Kelly Ann Taddonio, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research


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