President Obama took a long-awaited drubbing on his broken campaign promise of closing the detainee prison facility at Guantanamo Bay after news broke Monday that Attorney General Eric Holder had reversed plans to try 9/11 conspirators in federal court in New York City and will instead have them stand trial before military commissions at the U.S. base in Cuba.
The administration’s decision is a 180-degree about-face from earlier plans announced in November 2009.The White House press corp immediately declared Obama’s campaign promise of closing Guantanamo Bay a failure and pummeled Obama spokesman Jay Carney with question after question during a White House briefing about Holder’s anticipated reversal, wondering why it had come the same day Obama kicked off his re-election campaign with a low-key e-mail and video to supporters.
Carney refused to answer pointed questions about Holder’s decision, saying only that the President agreed with it, and referred reporters to the Justice Department.
“The President’s primary concern is that the perpetrators of that attack be brought to justice as swiftly as possible,” Carney repeated several times during his daily briefing with reporters when asked what Obama supporters would think about his broken campaign promise.
Critics in Congress of the efforts to try alleged co-conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in federal courts in New York City, including prominent New York Democrats, weren’t so reticent and quickly declared victory on the divisive issue. After Holder announced his intention to try KSM in New York, Congress erupted with opponents of the plans arguing that New York would give KSM a platform to spew anti-American rhetoric and make the city a target for more terrorist attacks.
“This means with certainty that the trial will not be in New York. While not unexpected, this is the final nail in the coffin of that wrong-headed idea,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a statement. “I have always said that the perpetrators of this horrible crime should get the ultimate penalty, and I believe this proposal by the administration can make that happen.”
Republicans said the decision was too long in the making and called on the administration to rethink it’s entire detainee policy. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), a vocal critic of the administration’s previous plans to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, he was glad that KSM would be treated as an enemy combatant rather than a common criminal.
“It’s unfortunate that it took the Obama administration more than two years to figure out what the majority of Americans already know: that 9-11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a common criminal, he’s a war criminal,” Smith said in a release. “Ten years is too long to wait for justice. I hope that this trial will give some solace to the families of the victims of 9-11. And I hope the Obama administration will stop playing politics with our national security and start treating foreign terrorists like enemy combatants.”
Smith will hold an already-scheduled hearing on the issue of military commissions versus civilian courts on Tuesday morning.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the main author of legislation creating military commissions in 2006 and 2009, applauded the move and said military prosecutors would operate in a fair and transparent way.
“Military commissions have been used in wars throughout our history, and they should be used in this war,” he said. “The commission trials will be transparent, conducted by the same judges and jurors who administer justice to our own troops, and subject to civilian review. In addition, the military commissions system balances the interest of the accused with the safety of our nation as a whole in this time of war.”
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) issued a joint statement giving Obama credit for coming around on the issue and ultimately determining that military tribunals are the right place to try 9/11 conspirators.
“While we know this was a difficult step for the President and is not what the Attorney General intended when he first announced that KSM and his cohorts would be tried in a civilian criminal court in New York in November 2009, it is the right decision and we strongly commend the President and the Attorney General for reaching this decision, as we and many others have called for,” they said.
Other prominent Senate Democrats who had loyally supported Obama’s efforts to shutter Guantanamo Bay, such as Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), expressed disappointment after Holder’s U-turn.
“I am disappointed with the decision not to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a Federal court,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “I believe that our justice system, which is the envy of the world, is more than capable of trying high-profile terrorism and national security cases. Federal courts have convicted hundreds of terrorists. The record in military commissions pales in comparison, with only a handful of convictions, and the ground rules still in flux.”