This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Liberty versus security, that initial heated debate over the war on terror, is again rearing its head with much bravado, nowhere more so than in our nation ‘s courtrooms where American justice continues to pay the price.
Over the course of the past nine years, in the name of counterterrorism, there has been a notable and unappreciated development inside the criminal justice system that is cause for alarm: a growing, if often veiled, intolerance for basic guarantees of justice in cases where "national security" is invoked. This trend leaves the nation ‘s justice system at risk.
Last weekend, as the Washington Post reported, Obama administration officials inadvertently called attention to this development in a non-decision over whether, where, and how to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial. Usually referred to only by his initials, KSM was the operational mastermind behind the attacks of September 11, 2001. Captured in Pakistan in 2003, and transferred to the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, he is the highest ranking Al Qaeda member taken into US custody since 9/11.
At issue is whether the Obama administration will try this close associate of Osama bin Laden via a military commission at Guantánamo or a jury of civilians in federal court in lower Manhattan or elsewhere. In a recent news conference, Attorney General Eric Holder mentioned that the decision was close. The response from New York ‘s politicians—Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, Republican Representative Peter King and even Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo—was prompt. There would, they insisted, be no 9/11 trial in New York City. At week ‘s end, according to the Post, unidentified administration officials were backpedaling fast, saying that KSM would likely "remain in military detention without trial for the foreseeable future."
Since the moment a year ago when Holder first announced the administration ‘s decision to try KSM in Manhattan (and four other Guantánamo detainees in federal courts), the fierce and growing opposition to such trials has focused mainly on issues of cost and security. It was claimed, in particular, that a trial of KSM would demand so much security that it would impede business in Manhattan, while putting a cost burden on New York City that could not be borne without federal aid. Behind such seemingly practical issues, though, lies a deeper current of opposition based on the fear of potential acquittal, the single unacceptable outcome for a trial in which terrorism is the charge.
This Wednesday ‘s stunning acquittal of Guantánamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani on all but one of 284 counts by a jury in a federal courtroom in Manhattan was the first sign in years that jurors felt confident enough to utter the word "acquittal" inside an American courtroom in a terror trial. (He may still get a life sentence for the single charge on which he was found guilty.) It was also the first time a jury had not been cowed by the notion that to be accused of terrorism is tantamount to being guilty. This verdict probably ensures that the Obama administration will never bring KSM before a jury of American civilians.