Hamdan the Guinea Pig
If the first war crimes trial coming out of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” was supposed to showcase the horrors of the enemy and our government’s successful pursuit of justice, it appears instead to be highlighting the absurdities of the administration’s prosecution of its ill-defined war.
Yesterday’s closing statements at the trial of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, revealed more about the government’s failures in targeting the mastermind of the terror attacks than about the guilt of the accused. There has been no real evidence that Hamdan was any more than a lowly assistant to bin Laden, at least not presented publicly. But as his military lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer, suggested yesterday in his closing statement, the secrecy of parts of this trial may be aimed more at hiding the government’s incompetence than protecting any privileged intelligence. “You know what Mr. Hamdan agreed to do,” Mizer told the military panel acting as a jury, according to today’s New York Times. “You know what happened, how we squandered that opportunity.”
Indeed, testimony during the trial made clear that Hamdan tried to help the U.S. military find his former boss, taking interrogators to Afghan homes and training camps to track down bin Laden. Now it seems that the U.S. military failed to follow up on some of those leads.
Meanwhile, despite two weeks of testimony, there’s been no publicly presented evidence showing that Hamdan himself attacked or plotted to kill anyone. Though the judge allowed an inflammatory 45-minute film about the horrors of Al Qaeda, made by a self-proclaimed 28-year-old terrorism expert with no post-graduate qualifications in the subject, the film provided no evidence linking Hamdan to the organization’s deadly activities. And while prosecutors revealed that weapons were found in the car Hamdan was driving, he was, after all, bin Laden’s driver. Yet that, in itself, doesn’t make him a war criminal. Even Hitler’s driver, Erich Kempka, was not prosecuted as a war criminal — a point that another of Hamdan’s defense lawyers, Joseph McMillan, noted in his closing statement.
The first war crimes trial to come out of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 should have been a publicly presented open-and-shut case of a hardened terrorist being brought to justice. It’s been nothing of the kind. That may matter little to Hamdan, however, the guinea pig for the new military commissions system. In perhaps the most Kafkaesque aspect of his case, even if he is acquitted of these charges, the U.S. government can still hold him in prison indefinitely — until it declares its “war on terror” over. Unfortunately, that day may never come, and perhaps won’t as long as bin Laden remains at large — at least in part because, as we’ve now learned, the government “squandered” one opportunity to capture him.