Obama Administration Defends Use of Courts in Terror Cases after Terror Suspect Acquitted of 280 Charges

November 19, 2010 - 12:09 PM

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani

An undated file photo provided by the U.S. District Attorney's office shows Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani. Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to face a civilian trial, has been acquitted in New York City of all but one charge accusing him of a deadly 1998 plot to bomb two U.S. embassies in Africa. (AP Photo/File)

Washington (AP) - The Obama administration said Thursday that it is committed to trying some terrorism suspects in civilian courts, even though a jury in New York acquitted a bombing defendant on more than 280 charges while convicting him on just one.

The administration will use "all the tools at our disposal" to try Guantanamo Bay detainees, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller described the outcome in the case against Ahmed Ghailani as "another in a long line of verdicts where federal civilian courts have shown the ability to deliver fair trials and long sentences."

Ghailani was convicted of conspiring in al-Qaida's 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and faces a sentence of 20 years to life behind bars. Miller said the U.S. government will seek the maximum punishment.

The case is significant because some have viewed it as a test of the challenges involved in trying a terrorist suspect in a civilian court.

Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to try avowed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others in New York was put on hold and is considered all but dead because of opposition in Congress and in New York based on security and other concerns. Those five remain at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba while the administration ponders its next move in their case.

Miller told reporters that the administration will continue to rely on a combination of civilian courts and military commissions.

"We make those decisions based on facts, based on the law," he said. "And we'll continue to work through that with the detainees who are still at Guantanamo." Miller did not discuss how any specific detainee would be handled.

Gibbs said decisions would have to be made on Guantanamo detainees. In Ghailani's case, "there was a guilty verdict, a minimum sentence of 20 years that incapacitates somebody that has committed a terrorist act and, because of that incapacitation, isn't going to threaten American lives," Gibbs said.

Both President Barack Obama and Holder avoided discussing detainee trials at appearances Thursday devoted to other topics. Reporters were brought in briefly as Obama spoke to a meeting on a nuclear weapons treaty in the White House Roosevelt Room. Later, the president came to the White House briefing room to discuss GM's stock sale. When reporters sought his reaction to the verdict at the conclusion of his statement, he headed back into the West Wing without responding.

Holder spoke to Justice Department employees at a veterans ceremony without mentioning the verdict.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is seen as key to any deal over Obama's plan to close Guantanamo, was Holder's guest at the Justice Department event. The senator told reporters afterward that top-level al-Qaida suspects should not be tried in civilian courts. Trying lower-level operatives in civilian courts "makes sense to me," said Graham.

Graham added: "I'm going to have my hands full holding back" some fellow Republicans who want to rule out the use of civilian courts altogether to try terrorist suspects.

"That would be a bridge too far for me," said Graham.

As for Guantanamo Bay, Gibbs said the president remains committed to closing the prison there "to ensure that that is no longer the recruiting poster that it is right now for al-Qaida."

Days after his election, Obama announced that he intended to close Guantanamo within a year. The administration came up with a plan to move detainees to a refurbished old prison in Thomson, Ill., which met opposition.

Congress responded to the controversy over closing Guantanamo and holding civilian trials by requiring the administration to notify it before any transfer of inmates to the United States. Republicans, set to take over control of the House in January, have said they would block such efforts.

"They couldn't come close to getting that done when the Democrats were in charge," said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who is expected to be the next chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "There's no way they're going to get it now that Republicans are in charge."

Administration officials believe there are only a handful of options for closing Guantanamo Bay:

- Prosecute the detainees. Some, like Ghailani, could face criminal trials. Others could face military commissions. Regardless, the administration wants those trials in the U.S., not at Guantanamo.

- Transfer some prisoners to other countries. Many already have been released or cleared for release. But Yemeni citizens make up the largest contingent, and the U.S. doesn't trust Yemen to monitor them if they are sent home. Two failed airline bombings originating in Yemen in the past year have made such release efforts even more difficult.

- Hold prisoners indefinitely. Top administration officials have said they don't like the idea but would consider it in some form, if the detainees were held inside the U.S. with some review by courts.

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Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.