Eric Holder said the decision was “a few weeks away” three months ago. Now, the decision is delayed until after the midterm elections— when the controversial plan could do less damage to the political fortunes of endangered Democrats and might face less resistance on Capitol Hill.
POLITICO Any further stalling could pose a serious political problem for Barack Obama on the left – where advocates cheered his administration’s plan to break from the Bush administration and give top al-Qaida figures trials in American courtrooms, a sign to the country and the world that U.S.-style justice was enough to try to men accused of the worst crimes in the nation’s history.
The White House already signaled that it’s dumped Holder’s plan for a 9/11 trial in Manhattan after a firestorm of local opposition. But it’s still unclear whether Obama will OK a civilian trial elsewhere – or move toward recently revamped military commissions, where the rules of evidence are different and the legal procedures largely untested.
Advocates say the signs of foot-dragging are evident. The Democrats’ political fortunes have dipped further, talks on the broader issue of Guantanamo closure have ground to a halt and the House took a little-noticed vote to block transporting any Gitmo detainees to the United States, for any reason.
That measure passed last month by an overwhelming majority, a clear warning shot that Republicans – and even some Democrats – are prepared to fight Holder’s plan if he continues to push for civilian trials, a roadblock that by itself could be enough to squash any short-term announcement.
“The worst possible outcome is not making a decision….There’s a genuinely weird paralysis I would not have predicted,” said Ben Wittes, a Brookings Institution scholar who has urged Obama to announce that there will be no trials for the 9/11 suspects. “It’s disgraceful and they should be embarrassed by it. There are pros and cons of any approach you take, but there is no good argument to let this fester indefinitely.”
While “swift and certain justice” once was a regular part of the White House lexicon on Guantanamo and detainee trials, that catchphrase has now vanished along with the prospect of anything swift happening to most of the prisoners slated for continued detention or trial.
However, the political attractiveness of delay for Democrats is pretty straightforward. “It deprives [Republicans] of a cheap 30-second spot about moving the most dangerous people in the world to U.S. soil. On the other hand, it makes Democrats look like they can’t handle the issue,” Malinowski said.
Some reports have suggested that most White House officials have sided with Emanuel, who is said to favor military trials. However, at meetings with human rights and civil liberties groups earlier this year, White House Office of Public Engagement Director Tina Tchen strongly hinted that Obama is inclined to back civilian trials if the practicalities can be worked out, a source said.
Others say that while a delay lowers the profile of the issue of a trial for KSM and his cohorts, it doesn’t sweep it off the table. “I think they want to take it off the table in the election, then they want to sneak it in or think we’ll have a different playing field or people will have softened on this,” said Debra Burlingame, who strongly opposes a civilian 9/11 trial. Her brother was an airline pilot killed aboard one of the 9/11 flights. “We are not going to go away,” she insisted.
“I think a civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is in the best interests of the United States and I’m prepared to wait for it,” said Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress.