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Monday, April 4, 2011

USA v. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed et al.: The Trial That Might Have Been

The Justice Department announced today that it will drop plans to hold civilian trials Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others accused in the September 11 attacks, instead of trying them before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay.

The debate over which approach is best has been dominated by a steaming pile of nothing. While both the criminal and military approaches have their merits and disadvantages, the political conversation in this country consists of "You don't think we're at war!" vs. "Yes, we do, but..." This conversation is almost entirely emotional in basis and profoundly lacking in substance.

I've written before about my view on this issue, and it's a utilitarian view. The U.S. public is better served by a criminal trial. Contrary to popular belief, holding a trial isn't *just* about protecting the rights of the defendants. It's also about making government transparent to the people, an issue President Obama has talked about but largely failed to deliver.

Specifically, in this case, a criminal trial serves the purpose of educating the public about terrorism and the adequacy of the government's response.

If it had not been for USA v. Usama bin Laden, the criminal trial prosecuting the 1998 East African embassy bombings, Americans would have known precious little about Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001.

USA v. Usama bin Laden et al. was then and remains today the single most important publicly accessible primary source on terrorism for the 21st century. The rules of court and the push-pull between defense and prosecution provide a rigorous vetting of the data entered into the record. That doesn't mean all the data is perfect, but its weaknesses are on display for all to see.

USA v. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed et al. would have created the definitive public record of the September 11 attacks, almost certainly eclipsing the 9/11 Commission Report. The loss of that information is an incalculable loss to the American public.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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