Trying terrorist in civilian court is the right move

Since 9/11, federal courts in the United States have handled hundreds of complex cases related to international terrorism.  At least 67 of those cases have involved terrorism suspects apprehended abroad, often in difficult circumstances.  In fact, federal courts have already convicted several of al Libi’s associates for their involvement in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings—the very crimes that al Libi is accused of.  Today, they are serving life sentences in a federal prison.

The vast majority of international terrorism cases handled in federal courts have resulted in convictions, because under federal law it is a crime to have any substantial operational connection to a terrorist organization.  Providing material support for terrorism, or conspiring to commit terrorist acts, for example, can result in lengthy sentences or life in prison.

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By contrast, indefinite detention and military trials at Guantanamo offer few benefits in these kinds of cases.  Detainees held in indefinite detention—a kind of legal limbo—have little incentive to cooperate with interrogators.  And our foreign counterparts—whose cooperation we almost always require to successfully apprehend and transfer terrorism suspects located abroad—will never agree to send suspects to Guantanamo, which is seen as inconsistent with international norms.

Though prosecutors and investigators are doing their best to work with a beleaguered military commissions system at Guantanamo, those trials have not panned out.  Only 7 individuals have been convicted in military commissions since 9/11, and two of those convictions have since been overturned because an appeals court held that the charges could not be sustained in a military commission.

Some in Congress nonetheless say it’s wrong to send “enemy combatants” to federal courts in the United States, where they will be provided a lawyer and read their Miranda rights.  This ignores the fact that the law typically allows for a brief period of questioning when public safety is at issue, and that the federal court system has a stellar record against terrorists. Terrorism suspects often cooperate precisely because their lawyers encourage them to provide useful intelligence in order to receive favorable consideration at trial.

Here are just some types of information received as a result of criminal prosecutions of terrorism suspects in the United States: the telephone numbers and email addresses used by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups; al Qaeda communications methods and security protocols; al Qaeda recruiting and financing methods; the location of al Qaeda training camps and safe houses; information on al Qaeda weapons programs; the identities of operatives involved in past attacks; and, information about future plots to attack U.S. interests.

While many in Congress seeking to sound “tough on terror” push for Guantanamo as the exclusive option for dealing with threats, it’s important that these key national security questions be answered with facts and common sense.  The reality is that when it comes to dealing with terrorism suspects, federal courts in the United States are the best option for our national security, and the rule of law.

Borelli is a 25-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), where he was Assistant Special Agent in Charge in the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), responsible for global investigations and counterterrorism missions.