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They're Off On The Road From Gitmo

5030951When the Obama Administration announced this week that it was sending, or had sent, a group of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to far-off Palau and to Bermuda the feds were doing nothing more or less than they had promised when they took office in January. The terror suspects have to go somewhere, after all, if the current administration is going to finish the business of depopulating Gitmo; a job that was earnestly started by the Bush Administration.

Immediately, however, the snide and the snark began. The men—Uighurs held captive for years without charges-- were going to "vacation paradises;" the detainees—who never should have been apprehended in the first place and who were long ago de-classified from "combatant" status—were costing taxpayers $11 million each, the price that Palau had imposed upon the White House for hosting the refugees. They were "terrorists" who were destined to come back and get us, even from so far away, which is why it was a good thing that we didn't just let them settle here in the first place.

So much disinformation, so many lies. Let's start with the most important one—the lazy notion that the Uighurs are "terrorists" who are being let off scot-free in the interests of political expediency. They aren't. They have been held captive, without charges, for years and years, and the only beef they had when they got to Gitmo was against China, which places them into no small minority around the world. Indeed, we can't send them back to China for fear that they will be persecuted. They are not and were not members of Al Qaeda.

Then there's the larger and more permanent myth about how dangerous it is to bring any of the terror detainees from Gitmo to the United States for trial and/or imprisonment. This is a sorry topic that came up again with particular force this week when a former Gitmo prisoner, Ahmed Ghailani, was brought to New York to stand trial. The Tanzanian national is being charged with involvement in the 1998 African Embassy bombings, a crime for which several of his alleged co-conspirators were tried and convicted long before September 11, 2001.

Judging from some coverage of Ghailani's arrival, and his subsequent not-guilty plea, you would think that the criminal justice system were about to embark upon a great, new crusade, an experiment in prosecuting a special breed of terror-criminal. Nothing could be further to the truth. Whatever he is, Ghailani is not the Son of Sam or even Ramzi Yousef, who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. He is not Charles Manson or even Zacarias Moussaoui, who made it to the States and was learning to fly planes (but not land them) in August 2001.

Yousef, Moussaoui, Richard Reid (the so-called shoebomber) Ahmed Ressam (the so-called Millenium bomber), and scores of other "terrorists" have been successfully tried and convicted here. Sometimes the process is not pretty—Moussaoui made a mockery of his 2005 trial before he was sentenced to life in prison. But the results are impressive. Name me a terrorist, foreign-born or domestic, who has been brought here for trial and skated? You can't. That's why the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, shares a prison with Moussaoui who shares a prison with Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols who shares a prison with the aforementioned Yousef.

Thus a great many politicians on both sides of the aisle have scored great points pretending to ease the fears of constituents they have scared into thinking that it is unsafe or unwise to prosecute most of the Gitmo prisoners in our regular civilian courts. The truth is that America's prisons already are chalk full of terrorists despite our penchant for the not-in-my-backyard cowardice that prompted the Congress last month to block $80 million the Obama Administration says it needed to help close Gitmo. There is no grandfather clause for terror suspects, I guess, when they come from the prison on Cuba. More bad luck for them.

I cannot explain why Ghailani wasn't long ago brought to the States for trial over the Embassy bombing. After all, America had no such qualms about bringing his alleged confederates to trial in the Southern District of New York in 1998. But I can say that using the federal courts to process a great many of these detainees is a perfectly legitimate way to get to the end of Gitmo. Instead of ramping up domestic fear over these people, our political leaders should instead muster up the courage and the confidence to let the courts do their jobs. So far the judges and prosecutors and witnesses who have handled terrorism cases have been more than up to the task.

Andrew Cohen is CBS News' Chief Legal Analyst and Legal Editor. CourtWatch is his new blog with analysis and commentary on breaking legal news and events. For columns on legal issues before the beginning of this blog, click here. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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