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What’s the Point of Those Military Commissions Again?

Yesterday’s announcement that the Obama administration will try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other 9/11 suspects in federal court has been hailed as everything from “an important step forward for justice” by Human Rights Watch to “a step backwards for the security of our country [that] puts Americans unnecessarily at risk” by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Glenn Greenwald has pointed out the irony of Republicans now raising fears of another terror attack simply because the president has decided to prosecute terror suspects in a way that’s consistent with American values.

But some important points are being drowned out by the hysteria. Retired Adm. John Hutson, now the dean of Franklin Pierce Law Center, yesterday observed that “there’s no particular reason to believe that if terrorists are going to take vengeance on the US for prosecuting these people, that that’s going to happen at the location or at a hard target.” A federal supermax prison or high-security New York City jail is actually “the least likely place for vengeance to be taken,” given the obstacles presented by all the security, he said on a conference call organized by Human Rights First. “The logical consequence of that stream of logic is that we not prosecute them at all to avoid some form of retribution.”

The other point largely overlooked is that while Attorney General Eric Holder announced plans to try the alleged 9/11 plotters in federal court, he also announced that the suspected USS Cole bomber, among others who’ve attacked U.S. soldiers or military targets, would be tried in the newly reconstituted military commissions. So are they getting a lesser trial?

“Despite the changes enacted by Congress this year, that untested system does not have the track record of fairness and justice that our criminal justice system has,” said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) yesterday, after praising the decision to try KSM and his alleged co-conspirators in federal court.

Col. Morris Davis, the former chief military prosecutor for the commissions, made this important point Sunday in The Wall Street Journal: having two different justice systems “establish[es] a dangerous legal double standard that gives some detainees superior rights and protections, and relegates others to the inferior rights and protections of military commissions. This will only perpetuate the perception that Guantanamo and justice are mutually exclusive.”

Another former military prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who resigned his post in protest last September, echoed that yesterday. “To say that you’ve achieved the gold standard for certain defendants by holding their trials in federal courts, and the rest can go to Gtmo, doesn’t necessarily resurrect the image of Gtmo or the military commissions as beacons of fairness. And if one of the stated goals in closing Gtmo is to restore America’s moral position in the world, the decision taken today won’t get us closer to accomplishing that.”

Holder’s justification for trying the Cole bomber and others by military commission is that in each case, their targets were a U.S. soldier or military installation. But isn’t that what we use our regularly constituted military courts for? Isn’t that why Major Nidal Malik Hassan, who last week apparently shot up 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base, is being tried by court martial? The only difference would appear to be that the suspects headed for military commissions are not American citizens. So that’s why they get an inferior justice system?

That decision combined with the implicit acknowledgment in Holder’s announcement yesterday that U.S. federal courts a superior form of justice to the military commissions just highlights a question that’s becoming increasingly difficult to answer: Just what is the purpose of those new military commissions?

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