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The law and terrorists

Bush's attempts to use extra-legal means against suspected terrorists was a mistake that Obama, thankfully, is stopping.

February 21, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

In the remarks he made at Thursday's ceremony to swear in Leon Panetta as the 19th director of Central Intelligence, Vice President Joe Biden made it clear just how fundamentally this administration rejects its predecessor's violent break with traditional American views of human rights and the rule of law.

Speaking to an audience composed mainly of CIA employees -- who reportedly responded enthusiastically -- Biden pointed out that President Obama already has "issued an executive order to reverse the policies that in my view and the view of many in this agency caused America to fall short of its founding principles, and which gave Al Qaeda a powerful recruiting tool."

Biden said the U.S. was closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, setting a single standard across the government for interrogation rules and ensuring Red Cross access to detainees. "We will use force if necessary, but we will engage in aggressive and active diplomacy," he said. "And we'll be true to our own values."

Panetta, the former Monterey-area congressman and White House chief of staff, responded in kind, saying, "I want to perform our job with integrity and with respect for the laws and for the Constitution that we are all pledged to uphold."

In other words, no more torture, no more secret prisons, no more indefinite incarceration without charges, access to counsel or recourse to established courts.

Of all the collateral damage America suffered on 9/11, none may have been more catastrophic than the Bush/Cheney administration's rejection of our established civilian and military legal systems to deal with the country's criminal enemies. In fact, the murky, torture-ridden parallel gulag they tried to create may have pushed some of the most culpable Al Qaeda criminals -- like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind -- nearly beyond the reach of justice.

A ruling handed down this week by -- of all people -- Britain's Law Lords is an object lesson in just how unnecessary all that was. Abu Qatada is the nom de guerre of a particularly vicious Palestinian-born jihadi cleric, whose real name is Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman. A Jordanian subject, he managed to use Britain's humane asylum laws to settle there in 1993, along with a wife and more than a dozen family members, all of whom have since lived on welfare and in public housing.

Abu Qatada/Othman went on spewing theocratic bile and hatching terrorist plots. Back in Jordan, he was tried and convicted in absentia for plotting a hotel bombing in 1998 and an assault on a Christian pilgrimage a year later. A Spanish judge investigating his role in a bombing there called him "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe." Tapes of his hate-inflected sermons were found in the Hamburg, Germany, apartment of the 9/11 hijackers.

British authorities have had Abu Qatada in legal custody for many years now and have been eager to extradite him to Jordan, where he faces two 15-year prison sentences. They even took the extra step of getting their Jordanian counterparts to promise not to mistreat (read: torture) the cleric once he's back in their hands. Abu Qatada has been vigorously represented by British counsel free of charge at every step of the proceedings against him, and they fought his extradition all the way up to the Law Lords, who sit as Britain's highest court of appeal. On Wednesday, a five-judge panel of the lords unanimously ordered Abu Qatada extradited, and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith immediately signed the order, calling the cleric "a truly dangerous man." For the moment, however, he remains in Britain, pending one final appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The point here is that Abu Qatada is about as bad an actor as they come, but Britain has been able to hold him and halt his criminal conduct, while acting completely within its common-law traditions and in accord with international standards of human rights. No one's security was in any way diminished by patient confidence in these most vital of Western values.

One of the most inexplicable things about the Bush/Cheney clique's utter disregard of those values was that we have our own examples of the legal system's competency to deal with jihadi criminality right here in the United States. Since 1996, another jihadi preacher, the "blind sheik," Omar Abdel Rahman, has been serving a life sentence after he and nine of his associates were convicted of seditious conspiracy for plotting attacks in New York and for their role in the first World Trade Center bombing. The mastermind of that attack, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef -- who happens to be Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's nephew -- was arrested in Pakistan, extradited to New York and sentenced in 1998 to life in prison without parole. (According to some media reports, he's since converted to Christianity.)

Our federal legal system was up to dealing with those conspirators and criminals, as it's up to dealing with Al Qaeda now. When the Bush/Cheney people panicked and forgot that, they granted the jihadis an outsized malevolence, turning them into Islamist superheroes. One of the great things about the bar of justice is that when all are made to stand honestly before it, everyone is cut down to size.

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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