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Experts, Editorial Boards, Public Back Warsame Prosecution

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Report 12 July 2011

Terrorism & National Security Terrorism & National Security al qaeda Republican Terrorist Trials

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was prosecuting Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame for terrorism-related charges in the federal court in New York City.  Warsame, who is perceived to have been a connector between al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia's al Shabaab, was reportedly seized in April and held aboard a U.S. Navy ship for two months. National security experts welcomed the decision to bring Warsame to New York for federal prosecution, but it has sparked a surprising reaction from the right. Evoking controversial but unrelated state court decisions, and experience gained not in law enforcement but on television, some Congressional conservatives responded by calling for the use of military commissions, which have proven at best ineffective at prosecuting terrorists and at worst harmful to America's counterterrorism efforts. By contrast, the administration's comprehensive, effective approach to has drawn the support of key experts, editorial boards and public opinion.

National security experts support president's decision to utilize "single most effective tool" for bringing terrorists to justice: civilian courts. NSN Senior Advisor Major General (ret) Paul Eaton writes that: "As a soldier, I am comforted by President Barack Obama's measured decision to use the Southern District of New York federal court instead of a military venue... The U.S. criminal justice system has performed brilliantly - trying hundreds of terrorists and sending better than 90 percent of those tried to significant prison sentences in high and maximum security prisons... By contrast, military commissions have produced six convictions, without particularly onerous sentences. Two of those convicted are now free."

John Brennan, White House counterterrorism advisor and career CIA agent, recently described Article III federal courts as the "single most effective tool for prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing suspected terrorists-and a proven tool for gathering intelligence and preventing attacks."  Legal analyst Daphne Eviatar sums up the record: "In fact, there hasn't been a single life sentence issued by a military commission in any case where the suspect actually put on a defense. Compare that to the recent civilian federal court convictions of Ahmed Ghailani, sentenced to life in prison after convicted of participating in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa; Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani sentenced to life in prison last year for his failed attempt to set off a bomb in Times Square; and Richard Reid, the attempted ‘shoe bomber' sentenced to life after the Bush administration won his conviction in a civilian federal court in Boston."  [Paul Eaton, 7/12/11. John Brennan, 6/29/11. Daphne Eviatar, 7/11/11.]

Hysterical response is about politics, not national security. The president's decision has elicited a series of hysterical responses from many of the political leaders on the right.  Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) accused the administration of "basically making decisions around not having to use Gitmo, rather than what's best for the country." While Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) spoke of the "perils of bringing terrorists onto U.S. soil."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) evoked an unrelated controversial verdict in a Florida state court: "We just found with the Caylee Anthony case how difficult it is to get a conviction in a U.S. court." And Fred Thompson, the former senator who played a New York district attorney on NBC's "Law and Order," writes in the National Review Online that: "It is with amazement that I read that a Somali terrorist is being imported into the United States to be tried in a U.S. civil court and accorded all the rights of an American citizen - anything to keep him out of Guantanamo and the military tribunal where he belongs... Clearly, they [the administration] learned nothing from the Casey Anthony trial."

Eviatar notes, "Citing the failed state prosecution of a disturbed mother in Florida as evidence for their cause only reinforces the impression that these lawmakers would rather grandstand than stand for the law." Maj. Gen. Eaton further explains that, "Fear does not make for good judicial policy. Nor does it make for good foreign or military policy. It does, however, serve politicians very well as they try to convince Americans to be afraid. Very afraid." [Lindsey Graham, 7/6/11. Buck McKeon, 7/6/11. Mitch McConnell via Fox News, 7/10/11. Fred Thompson, 7/11/11. Paul Eaton, 7/12/11. Daphne Eviatar, 7/11/11]

The public backs President Obama's comprehensive, effective approach to combating terrorism.  A number of editorials supporting the Warsame decision are backed by polls showing that the American public supports President Obama's handling of terrorism:

Sixty-nine percent of the public supports Obama's handling of terrorism. Chris Cilizza and Aaron Blake of the Washington Post write late last month, "In the latest Bloomberg poll, which was released Thursday, Obama's overall job approval stood at 49 percent. Although Obama's approval numbers on the economy (39 percent), job creation (38 percent) and the budget deficit (32 percent) all lagged, it was his stratospheric 69 percent approval on terrorism that helped his cumulative number hover near 50 percent." [Washington Post, 6/24/11]

The Washington Post editorial board - which is often critical of the administration on national security issues - writes: "A federal case against alleged terrorist Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame appears to have sprung from a successful operation that yielded valuable intelligence and actionable law enforcement information, all while providing Mr. Warsame with the protections required by international law. The Obama administration deserves credit for its handling of this case." They continue, "The government's ability to prosecute Mr. Warsame would have been on shakier ground had Congress - as it is threatening to do - outlawed terrorism trials in federal court and offered military commissions as the only option. ... A Congress truly concerned with national security would enhance the president's options in this way - not reduce them by eliminating strong and existing tools such as federal courts." [Washington Post, 7/10/11]

The Baltimore Sun editorial board states: "The bigger irony is that Republicans, who claim to be tough on terrorism, would rather take suspects like Mr. Warsame out of the federal courts, where the penalties are tougher and convictions easier to win, and put them in military tribunals, where the situation is just the opposite. Under the circumstances, it's hard to view their protests as anything but partisan posturing. The real issue is whether the U.S. needs to abandon the fundamental principles of fairness and the rule of law in order to defend itself effectively against terrorist threats. It does not. The system of military tribunals at Guantanamo was flawed from the start, and neither justice nor the country's need for accurate, timely intelligence have ever been served by brutalizing prisoners. The New York jury that found Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani guilty did so despite the fact that much of the most damning evidence against him had to be thrown out because it was obtained through torture." [Baltimore Sun, 7/11/11]

The Los Angeles Times editorializes that: "Republicans are livid about the way the Obama administration handled the apprehension and arrest of an accused Somali terrorist. But - with one exception - the treatment of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was a creditable balancing of national security concerns and due process... It is easy to dispose of the canard that accused terrorists can't be brought to the United States because their trials would pose a danger to the public. Several terrorist trials, including that of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, have been held without incident. As for the argument that Warsame shouldn't be given ‘all the rights of U.S. citizens,' it is precisely that feature of civilian trials that demonstrates to the world that the United States is willing to afford due process even to its bitterest enemies." [LA Times, 7/9/11]

What We're Reading

Ahmed Wali Karzai, half brother to the Afghan president and one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan, has been killed in Kandahar city by a close associate.

More than 1,000 Egyptians extended a protest in central Cairo to a fifth day after dismissing the prime minister's pledge to reshuffle the cabinet as falling short of demands for swifter reforms.

Widespread discussions are under way to bring the Libyan crisis to an end and "emissaries" say Muammar Qaddafi is ready to leave power, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

The Obama administration accused Syrian authorities of instigating attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus to divert attention from Syria's deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Washington's decision to hold back $800 million in military aid to Pakistan probably won't prod Islamabad into clamping down on militancy, and instead could imperil a fragile alliance at a time when the United States needs Pakistan's cooperation in securing a peaceful end to the war in Afghanistan, experts said.

President Obama and congressional Republicans grew increasingly contentious, as GOP leaders flatly rejected his call to raise taxes on the wealthy as part of a bipartisan agreement to restrain the nation's mounting debt.

Fourteen armed men abducted two U.S. citizens and their Philippine relative from a resort on the southern Philippine island of Tictabon, where Islamist militants and Muslim separatists are known to be active.

Commentary of the Day

Steven Cook contends that the national dialogue convened by the Syrian government lacks credibility, and raises question about what steps the Syrian military will take as the regime faces continued popular protests.

Milt Bearden argues that Pakistan has the opportunity and the resources to develop industry and promote job creation but in order to do so, the country will first need to rework its relationship with the United States and, following that, with Afghanistan and India.

Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe argue for the importance of an accurate count of civilian deaths as these statistics can influence political responses to armed conflicts, famines and natural disasters.