With headlines — reported prominently in the Washington Post — of "unnamed" administration officials hinting that President Obama will reverse his decision to try Guantanamo terrorists in military commissions rather than civilian trials in the U.S., two things are apparent. First, that Obama has shown poor judgment in regard to detainees yet again, and second, that America has wasted a full year dithering over their disposition.
At this time in 2009, KSM and company had agreed to a guilty plea in front of Guantanamo-based military commissions, and were ready to accept a rendered verdict — including the death penalty. Justice was prepared to come full circle on the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack.
Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder squandered it in a futile attempt to hold show trials in New York City that many considered no more than a stick to use to beat the outgoing Bush administration.
In what had to be one of Holder’s most teeth-grating moments, he testified before a Senate committee that a New York trial would "finally, finally" bring these terrorists to "justice" and show the world how wonderful was America’s criminal trial system.
"In the past seven years," he intoned self-righteously, "we have only successfully brought three military commission trials to conclusion."
Holder’s feigned frustration was a moment that went largely unchallenged by senators, one of whom ought to have at the very least raised the issue of how pro-Gitmo attorneys — who number more than 500 — themselves caused these unnecessary delays.
Instead, Holder got away with pretending that it was the Bush people who delayed and not the endless parade of legal actions initiated largely by Holder’s former law firm, Covington & Burling, and those of the many pro bono Gitmo attorneys who now make up a significant part of his DOJ staff.
For almost a decade these firms donated uncounted thousands of billable hours to the cause of defending Guantanamo detainees and were directly responsible for the constipation of the system.
Then, as administration officials they had the gall to criticize the very slow process that their very actions had jammed up.
Nor has Holder and Co. been held accountable for the millions of dollars that poured into law firm coffers from largely unidentified Saudi and Gulf State pockets retaining them for defending America’s enemies.
Even with his congressional super-majorities, Obama quickly learned that grass-roots pushback for his multiple flawed choices of first closing and relocating detainees onto U.S. soil, then holding large, expensive, and dangerous trials in New York were so repugnant that normally compliant party members were loath to support them.
Perhaps the final nail in the trial-in-New York decision came when Senators John McCain and Joe Leiberman introduced legislation prohibiting such farcical displays. This was the kind of bill that would gain true bipartisan support — of the kind that Obama would hate since it went against his wishes.
Rather than fight another losing battle that would add to a string of defeats, Obama chose to back-pedal and reverse himself again. Going out on a limb here, expect that the blame will be shifted adroitly to leave Holder and Justice as fall guys.
At the moment, thanks to ill-planning and stunning lack of understanding of public will, it appears that we will come full circle. Guantanamo closure is now all but off the table and military commissions will resume.
The net gain: nil.
America appears weak and vacillating to allies and enemies alike. Obama will be once again forced to paper over his squandered political loss by vain excuses and blame — of Bush, of Holder, of anyone but himself.
And the American public — especially those still hurting from the 9/11 losses — will have seen yet another year lost to closure.
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