Liberals warn Obama against flip-flopping on terror trials

Gautham Nagesh Contributor
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News that the Obama administration may revert to a military tribunal to prosecute the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks was roundly denounced by the left on Friday, with liberals voicing their frustration at the White House’s willingness to embrace the same strategy for trying suspected terrorists as the Bush administration.

The Washington Post reported Friday that the president’s advisers are nearing a recommendation to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. The recommendation would fly in the face of Attorney General Eric Holder’s plan to try the self-described mastermind behind 9/11 in a New York City civilian court. The White House has claimed that any decision on the trial is weeks away, but that didn’t stop the liberal blogosphere from erupting in pre-emptive indignation over the White House’s apparent flip-flop.

Liberal firebrand Glenn Greenwald denounced the proposal today, accusing the White House of favoring political expediency over the rule of law. Greenwald compared the decision to the the alleged politicization of the Department of Justice under President Bush and cited several instances in which Obama has reversed his position on national security issues to avoid being labeled soft on terror.

“Although they will try, it will be extremely difficult even for his most devoted loyalists to deny the fundamental cowardice of Barack Obama,” wrote Greenwald. “Even just as a political matter, is there any better way to ensure that Americans will view him as weak than by abandoning one key decision after the next as a result of the slightest pressure?  What kind of person could possibly admire a ‘leader’ who does this?”

In recent weeks the White House has been backed off from its commitment to a civilian trial for Mohammed after a strong resistance emerged to holding the trial in New York. Obama has in the past advocated using military tribunals for other suspected terrorists, but the symbolic weight of continuing the Bush policy has caused liberal interest groups to question the president’s commitment to the principles he espoused on the campaign trail.

“I think it would be unfortunate if he made the change. Then it becomes a question about whether or not you can trust the president’s word,” said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. Murphy said only three suspected terrorists have been tried in tribunals, while 300 have passed through the civilian courts, which she said are more efficient and have clearer rules of evidence.

There is talk that the White House is considering switching to the tribunals as part of a deal with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to secure the necessary votes to close Guantanamo this year. The closure of the Cuban base has taken on new urgency since the president’s one-year deadline for closure has come and gone. Greenwald said such political horse-trading “borders on corruption.”

“And even if it were true, it raises the question nobody can answer: What is the point of closing Guantanamo if the core Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld system — military commissions for some and indefinite detention for the rest — is retained in full by Obama?” wrote Greenwald.

Ken Gude from the Center of American Progress agreed the trade-off makes little sense for the White House politically or from a legal standpoint.

“The political calculation that caving on the 9/11 trial will ensure or even ease the path to close Guantanamo is deeply flawed. Any deal that would gain Sen. Graham’s support will surely lose many more Democratic votes and I am extremely skeptical that Sen. Graham would be able to bring any other Republicans with him, especially as Sen. McConnell has already telegraphed his political strategy of absolute opposition to Obama’s counterterrorism policies,” Gude said.

The primary source of the liberal anger comes from the belief that Obama would be sacrificing the moral high ground and jeopardizing the country’s standing in the international community.

“Politics aside, this is about doing what’s right. Military commissions are virtually untested and woefully unprepared for the complex and challenging 9/11 case that includes nearly 3,000 counts of murder. A criminal trial for the 9/11 plotters is in the best interests of the United States,” Gude said.

“[The president] can’t continue to vacillate over matters of American values,” Murphy said. “These go to core of what makes America different — how you detain people, whether you torture them, how you prosecute them. These are the very issues that separated us from Great Britain.”