The Obama administration has said it intends to try several of the prisoners now detained at Guantanamo Bay in civilian courts in this country. This would include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and other detainees allegedly involved. The Justice Department claims that our courts are well suited to the task.
Based on my experience trying such cases, and what I saw as attorney general, they aren't. That is not to say that civilian courts cannot ever handle terrorist prosecutions, but rather that their role in a war on terror—to use an unfashionably harsh phrase—should be, as the term "war" would suggest, a supporting and not a principal role.
The challenges of a terrorism trial are overwhelming. To maintain the security of the courthouse and the jail facilities where defendants are housed, deputy U.S. marshals must be recruited from other jurisdictions; jurors must be selected anonymously and escorted to and from the courthouse under armed guard; and judges who preside over such cases often need protection as well. All such measures burden an already overloaded justice system and interfere with the handling of other cases, both criminal and civil.
Moreover, there is every reason to believe that the places of both trial and confinement for such defendants would become attractive targets for others intent on creating mayhem, whether it be terrorists intent on inflicting casualties on the local population, or lawyers intent on filing waves of lawsuits over issues as diverse as whether those captured in combat must be charged with crimes or released, or the conditions of confinement for all prisoners, whether convicted or not.
...Moreover, the rules for conducting criminal trials in federal courts have been fashioned to prosecute conventional crimes by conventional criminals. Defendants are granted access to information relating to their case that might be useful in meeting the charges and shaping a defense, without regard to the wider impact such information might have. That can provide a cornucopia of valuable information to terrorists, both those in custody and those at large.
...Moreover, it appears likely that certain charges could not be presented in a civilian court because the proof that would have to be offered could, if publicly disclosed, compromise sources and methods of intelligence gathering. The military commissions regimen established for use at Guantanamo was designed with such considerations in mind. It provided a way of handling classified information so as to make it available to a defendant's counsel while preserving confidentiality. The courtroom facility at Guantanamo was constructed, at a cost of millions of dollars, specifically to accommodate the handling of classified information and the heightened security needs of a trial of such defendants.
Nevertheless, critics of Guantanamo seem to believe that if we put our vaunted civilian justice system on display in these cases, then we will reap benefits in the coin of world opinion, and perhaps even in that part of the world that wishes us ill. Of course, we did just that after the first World Trade Center bombing, after the plot to blow up airliners over the Pacific, and after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
In return, we got the 9/11 attacks and the murder of nearly 3,000 innocents. True, this won us a great deal of goodwill abroad—people around the globe lined up for blocks outside our embassies to sign the condolence books. That is the kind of goodwill we can do without.