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February 11, 2008

Military Prosecutors Ask for the Death Penalty

Pundits and politicians have given no small attention to the Guantanamo Bay combatant-detainees during the election season. The New York Times editorial board wants the prisoners charged or freed. Senator Obama wants to give them habeas corpus access to federal courts or to close Guantanamo or both. McCain wants to close Guantanamo and bring them here (which would be another way of getting the detainees into federal courts).

What we do with the detainees will profoundly impact the way we wage the War on Terror. Is it a war or a police action? And what do we do with alien unlawful combatants when we capture them? Today, the Pentagon has announced that it will seek the death penalty in military commissions to be held for six detainees who were involved in the September 11 attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

"The department has been working diligently to prepare cases and bring charges against a number of individuals who have been involved in some of the most grievous acts of violence and terror against the United States and our allies," Whitman said.

Prosecutors have been working for years to assemble the case against suspects in the attacks that prompted the Bush administration to launch its global war on terror.

"The prosecution team is close to moving forward on referring charges on a number of individuals," Whitman said, declining to name the defendants.

The New York Times reported in Monday's editions that the others are Mohammed al-Qahtani, the man officials have labeled the 20th hijacker; Ramzi bin al-Shibh, said to have been the main intermediary between the hijackers and leaders of Al Qaeda; Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, known as Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who has been identified as Mohammed's lieutenant for the 2001 operation; al-Baluchi's assistant, Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi; and Walid bin Attash, a detainee known as Khallad, who investigators say selected and trained some of the hijackers.

The military commissions, already a sore subject for some Democrats, are about to get a great deal of scrutiny because the death penalty is back on the table. Obama and Clinton will be stumping on this all week, emphasizing the unfairness of the abridged procedures of the tribunal process.

I'm more curious to see what McCain does. He's on the record as wanting to close Guantanamo Bay and he opposes the methods used to break Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. On the other hand, he voted for the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Is he going to change his tune now that he's the Republican frontrunner? Or is he going to stand by his September 2006 vote and support the Pentagon's efforts to deal with detainees who cannot or should not be repatriated?

While we wait to see what McCain does, we shouldn't get too excited about the commissions. Although they have been authorized for over a year, only Omar Khadr and Salim Ahmed Hamdan have had hearings at the tribunals. Neither has actually reached the trial stage, despite being charged in May 2007. At this rate, we will have a new president and Congress before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the others are tried.

UPDATE: Drew suggested that this post might be an appropriate one for a 9/11 picture. He described it as "critical context" for the potential trials of KSM and the other baddies. After politely declining, I realized that it's going to bug me now if I don't post something, because he's right. I can't take another picture of the burning buildings or the west face of the Pentagon, but this picture is okay. To me it says, "We are going to beat you now."


In my head, it is accompanied by a blare of trumpets.

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posted by Gabriel Malor at 12:07 PM

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