Politics & Policy

Unpacking Obama’s Rationale on Terrorists

Do you get the sense that they have not thought this through?

Is there an organizing principle behind the Obama administration’s decisions on how to deal with accused terrorists?

Announcing that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, mastermind of 9/11, and four of his co-conspirators would be granted a civilian trial in Manhattan while the U.S.S. Cole bombers would receive a military tribunal, Attorney General Eric Holder was bombastic but opaque. “For over two hundred years,” he intoned, “our nation has relied on a faithful adherence to the rule of law to bring criminals to justice.” How did he decide who got a civilian trial, with its lavish legal protections, and who got a military tribunal? It was a case-by-case determination, he explained, depending upon “the nature of the offense, the location in which the offense occurred, the identity of the victims, and the manner in which the case was investigated.” Not a legal principle to be found anywhere in that explanation.

#ad#When critics observed that this practically amounted to an engraved invitation to al-Qaeda to attack our civilians in preference to our warships, the attorney general countered that he had chosen the venues most likely to “maximize our chances for success.” Really? At a Senate hearing, Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) shot down that fatuity by noting that KSM had already pleaded guilty at the military tribunal in Guantanamo. (He also welcomed martyrdom, which one wishes could have been promptly granted.) At the same hearing, Holder could not say whether Osama bin Laden would be read his Miranda rights if U.S. forces captured him tomorrow.

Do you get the sense that they have not thought this through?

Now that New York City has declined the KSM trial, the administration seems embarrassed and bereft of ideas. Perhaps an Internet dating service could help them: “ISO venue for terror trial, hanging juries a must.” Yes, the death penalty has been invoked by an attorney general who claims simultaneously that a) the civilian trial of this terrorist will showcase America’s devotion to the rule of law; and b) no matter what the outcome, KSM will not walk free.

To be fair to Eric Holder, his boss is no less incoherent.

While daintily reading rights to terrorists we nab here, the U.S. government is attacking suspected terrorists in the wild removes of Pakistan with Hellfire missiles. As National Journal reports:

Hidden behind walls of top-secret classification, senior U.S. government officials meet in what is essentially a star chamber to decide which enemies of the state to target for assassination. There is no single master list, but all names pass through an elaborate, multi-agency vetting process that ends at the level of the National Security Council and ultimately requires presidential approval.

Apparently, presidential approval has been readily forthcoming. President Obama has approved 50 drone strikes in Pakistan since January 2009, compared with 33 in the last year of the Bush administration. The strikes have reportedly killed dozens of suspected terrorists (along with some civilians).

#page#Sitting in the Pentagon in Virginia, the U.S. military tracks suspected terrorists nearly 7,000 miles away and blasts them with Predator drones when they get a clear shot. Former CIA officer Robert Baer adds, “Typically there is no independent verification from many of these ungoverned places to even confirm whether they pulled the trigger on the right guy. There are no questions asked.”

#ad#Nor do they read them their rights. No trials. No process at all, just an intelligence report and a Hellfire missile. That is the way the Obama administration treats rumored terrorists in the border areas of Pakistan. In fact, ABC News has reported that the administration may even have targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam believed to have been a “spiritual guide” to the Fort Hood terrorist and the underwear bomber. For the record, that is fine with me. But how do they reconcile the contradiction?

When the administration apprehends an incontrovertible terrorist, still bleeding from his attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, what do they do? They read him his rights, assign him a lawyer, and invite him to remain silent. When they have the architect of 9/11 in Guantanamo Bay awaiting trial in a military court, they announce that they will whisk him to New York and supply him with all the rights of an American citizen.

There are no principles at work here, just the vain and misguided pursuit of international respectability. Obama may well receive applause from Norwegian committees and Sorbonne students — though not from wiser observers — but he should get none from those he is responsible for protecting.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2010 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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