Just as a key terrorism trial was about to begin, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan barred prosecutors from using a key witness after the government acknowledged that it had learned about the witness from the defendant, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani while he was being interrogated and held in a secret overseas jail run by the CIA. In light of the decision the trial start was delayed until next Tuesday, allowing the government time to adjust its strategy or to appeal the ruling.
Early press reports on the decision call the ruling a setback for the Obama administration’s goal of trying former detainees in civilian courts. But these reports largely miss the point.
Attorney General Eric Holder was faced with the following decision: further pursue a strategy of trying criminals outside the confines of constitutional Article III courts and in military commissions, or rely on the rule of law and established precedent and try them in federal court. He chose the latter, and it was the right choice to make.
That doesn’t mean the choice is free from political consequence, and indeed, as the early reporting suggests, the narrative will be that this ruling is a failure of the administration’s. It is not. It is a victory for the rule of law and an affirmation that due process and transparency are the driving forces of justice.
Attorney General Holder’s confidence in the ability of the civilian criminal justice system to hold terrorism trials should not be confused with an arrogance that the government will win every case. Indeed, at a conviction rate of 400 to 4, one could even argue that he’d be justified in having a little bit of that arrogance. The overwhelming success of the criminal justice system highlights what has been largely ignored in yesterday’s ruling: when the cases are built on solid investigation techniques the system works and when they are built on torture and secrecy they don’t.
photo courtesy of walknboston via Flickr
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