Obama says he would have tried bin Laden in US federal court

Had the Navy SEALs captured Osama bin Laden, the United States would have tried him in federal court, President Obama said in an interview published by Vanity Fair.

“We worked through the legal and political issues that would have been involved, and Congress and the desire to send him to Guantánamo, and to not try him, and Article III,” Obama said, referring to the federal courts.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr,” he said.

Obama’s comments about trying bin Laden in court were part of a Vanity Fair article adapted from author Mark Bowden’s new book, The Finish, which details the killing of bin Laden.

Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, writes that in the unlikely event bin Laden was captured alive by the Navy SEAL team that raided his Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound, the Obama administration would have taken the opportunity to try and restart criminal trials for terrorists, rather than military tribunals in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The Obama administration first floated the idea when it wanted to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in New York City, but the administration retreated from that plan in the face of stiff opposition in Congress. Mohammed is now being tried in Guantanamo.

Attempting to put bin Laden on trial in federal court would have undoubtedly encountered the same resistance.

Bowden reported that nearly all of Obama’s top advisers favored the raid on bin Laden, with only Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Vice President Biden expressing opposition.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was CIA director at the time of the May 2011 raid, told Obama to ask himself: “What would the average American say if he knew we had the best chance of getting bin Laden since Tora Bora and we didn’t take a shot?” according to the report.

“It was a matter of taking one last breath and just making sure, asking is there something that I haven’t thought of?” Obama said. “Is there something that we need to do? ... At that point my estimation was that we weren’t going to be able to do it better a month or two months or three months from now. We weren’t going to have better certainty about whether bin Laden was there, and so it was just a matter of pulling the trigger.”

More in Defense

Navy opens probe of former SEAL who claims to have killed bin Laden

Read more »