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The war on terror's legal battle

The Obama administration shouldn't waver in its commitment to give suspected terrorists due process.

February 03, 2010

From the start, this page never believed it was crucial that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his four confederates be tried in federal court in Manhattan. Now the Obama administration apparently agrees. After an about-face by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who once said the alleged architects of 9/11 should face justice "where so many New Yorkers were murdered" -- the administration reportedly is looking for a new venue.

That's fine with us. Although trials generally ought to be located where the crime occurred, there are plenty of reasons in this case to make an exception. The problem, however, is that President Obama's change of heart could embolden those in Congress who opposenot just a trial in New York but, more broadly, the president's determination to show the world that even accused terrorists will receive due process in this country. Obama must prevent his critics from exploiting the trial's relocation to try to dismantle his larger policy of bringing the war on terror under the rule of law.

Even before it was reported that Mohammed and the others might not be tried in Manhattan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and several other Republican senators were savaging the Obama administration for treating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to destroy an airliner on Christmas Day, "as a civilian defendant -- including advising him of a right in a civilian law enforcement context not to cooperate -- rather than as an intelligence resource to be thoroughly interrogated in order to obtain potentially life-saving information."

So it isn't just the policy of trying suspected terrorists in civilian court that is under siege. McConnell also argued on Sunday that suspected terrorists should be sent to Guantanamo, and he threatened to block funding needed to close the prison. Put on the defensive, the administration has insisted that Abdulmutallab wasn't read his rights until after he had provided valuable information and stopped talking. Administration officials also point out that accused terrorists were tried in civilian courts during the George W. Bush administration.

Closing Guantanamo and trying detainees in courts of law are signature features of Obama's rejection of Bush's anti-terror policies. Yet the president has undermined his own position by needlessly hedging his commitment to full due process for accused terrorists. First, he decided to try some in military commissions, allowing critics to ask why the same treatment isn't sufficient for the alleged 9/11 conspirators. More recently, a task force he appointed suggested holding about 50 detainees without trial, a recommendation Obama should reject. It will be hard for the president to defend his convictions if he doesn't hold fast to them himself.

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