Sequestering the war on terror

Amy Davidson writes: “Stunning,” Judge Lewis Kaplan said Monday, to the defense lawyers for Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, who is being tried on terrorism conspiracy charges. They had just asked him to delay the trial, not for any of the reasons one might expect in this sort of case, like new evidence or classified case files or a defendant stashed in the limbo of Guantánamo — Ghaith is in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, which seems to be holding him just fine. The problem is the budget fight in Congress, of all things: thanks to sequestration, the federal public defenders on the case have been told they’ll be furloughed for days adding up to five and a half weeks. “It’s extremely troublesome to contemplate the possibility of a case of this nature being delayed because of sequestration,” Kaplan said. There are days when it can be hard to sort out the absurdities of the legal side of the war on terror from the absurdity of Washington in general.

It is a good thing that Ghaith is in a real court, at least, and not at Guantánamo, whose dysfunction has been thrown into relief in the last few weeks by a mass hunger strike. There are Republicans who are angry that he isn’t. “Taking the sequester scare tactics to a new level, now it appears we’ll have a confessed al Qaeda member sitting in an N.Y.C. jail and eating up taxpayer dollars while he waits out a manufactured delay in a trial that shouldn’t have been held on U.S. soil in the first place,” Senator John Cornyn told the Free Beacon, in a quote that might win a contest for packing multi-headed, multi-topic wrongheadedness into a single sentence. It costs many more taxpayer dollars to confine someone to Guantánamo indefinitely; why not try him in the city that was attacked on 9/11?

That said, the Obama Administration needs to be sure not to let sequestration get it off track in this case. Bringing Ghaith to Manhattan was a rare healthy response to the Republican tactic of making it hard for the Administration to get anyone out of Guantánamo — even the dozens of people who have been cleared for release (hence the hunger strike). Mostly, the Obama Administration has been fearful, in a way that has turned absurdity into lethality. Its frustrations with Guantánamo have led it to turn to drone strikes rather than to the guards at the M.C.C. It has built up another rickety extrajudicial program — the drone war — even as it has all but given up on the fight to close Guantánamo. That is not an argument for Guantánamo, just as saying that when you torture people you don’t kill them isn’t an argument for either torture or drones. You can say no to both. [Continue reading…]

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