King: Setback in embassy bombings prosecution shows need for tribunals

As the debate over how to prosecute suspected terrorists erupted again last week, the top-ranking House Republican on the Homeland Security committee says a federal judge’s ruling supports the GOP mantra that the White House was wrong to use civilian courts.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told The Hill that the recent judicial decision to not allow the testimony of a key government witness is also an indication of problems that lie in store for the Justice Department if it attempts to use civilian courts to try other suspected terrorists, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — the self-proclaimed mastermind behind 9/11.

The possible setback for U.S. prosecutors in the case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is on trial for his alleged role in the bombings of the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, came last week when Judge Lewis Kaplan of the United States District Court in Manhattan ruled they could not use the testimony of the man who, the U.S. government says, sold explosives to Ghailani.

Kaplan said the witness, Hussein Abebe, would not be allowed to testify because it was possible the government learned of his alleged role in the bombings through information gleaned from an interrogation it conducted of Ghailani in an overseas prison maintained by the CIA. The government has said Abebe was testifying voluntarily.

Ghailani’s lawyers applauded the judge’s ruling, saying he was tortured during his interrogation and the decision upheld American law.

But King said the decision pointed to the flaws of civilian courts, adding that they are incompatible with the job of interrogators who often need to get as much information from a suspect as quickly as possible, in order to prevent a future attack.

“This demonstrates one of the fundamental weaknesses of using civilian courts for these terrorist types of trials,” said King of the judge’s decision. “The fact that [Kaplan] would exclude not just Ghailani’s statements [from the interrogation] but also the voluntary testimony of [Abebe], who was never coerced at all, shows me the fundamental flaw in trying terrorists in a civilian court.”

“I can see how this could obviously be replicated in future cases,” King added. “We have to have a format which allows for interrogations to stop future crimes and also to try that person at a future time. I think the military tribunal is the best balance. It allows the most common sense by the judge.”

King has been part of a growing chorus of Republicans, and some Democrats, who have been critical of the Justice Department’s decision to use civilian courts, saying instead that military tribunals are the only effective means of trying suspected terrorists, partly because they have looser rules regarding what evidence is permissible.

The successful prosecution of accused terrorists has been a key issue for the White House, as it has sought to fulfill President Obama’s campaign promise of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

And though the New York Republican says the issue isn’t likely to get dragged onto the campaign trial, he emphasized that if the GOP is elected to a majority in either the House or the Senate this year, then voters could expect to see military commissions used as the venue of choice.

In the wake of Kaplan’s decision, Attorney General Eric Holder stood by the government’s choice to use civilian courts, saying they have led to hundreds of successful convictions of people involved in terrorist activities. Holder stressed the judge’s barring of the witness did not jeopardize the trial's success.

The White House is also trumpeting the success last week of the government’s conviction of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who was tried in a civilian court and sentenced to life in prison.

Ghailani’s trial is set to begin on Tuesday. If convicted, Ghailani could face a sentence of life in prison.