NYC: Bloomberg asks feds to consider moving 9-11 trials

Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Jan. 27 cited costs and potential disruptions to the lives of New Yorkers in urging the federal government not to try accused 9-11 conspirator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other high-profile terror suspects in New York City. Bloomberg suggested a military base may be a more appropriate venue for the trial. Earlier this month Bloomberg claimed that providing security for the trial in New York would cost the city more than $216 million in the first year and $206 million in any additional years. Bloomberg originally backed the idea of trying some of the terror suspects currently held at Guantánamo Bay in Manhattan due to its proximity to Ground Zero and the symbolic significance of convicting the suspects there. (Jurist, Jan. 28)

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  1. How many terrorists has the US convicted?
    An enlightening story by Ari Shapiro on NPR’s All Things Considered Feb. 11 explores this question. Since Attorney General Eric Holder decided to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, Republicans have been pushing for a military trial. Administration officials respond by stating that hundreds of terrorists have been convicted in federal court. But there is widespread disagreement on the specific number of terrorism convictions since 9-11.

    In a Feb. 7 interview on CBS, President Obama said the Bush administration “prosecuted 190 folks in these Article 3 courts and got convictions.” His number matches a report issued in July by Human Rights First. “We specifically looked at self-described Islamic or jihadist terrorists,” says Human Rights First senior associate Daphne Eviatar. “So these are people who are generally linked in some way to al-Qaeda or the Taliban.”

    But the government’s list of terrorist organizations includes some with no Islamist links, such as Sri Lankas’ Tamil Tigers and Colombia’s FARC. When those cases are included, the tally of terror convictions goes up.

    In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in November, Holder said, “There are more than 300 convicted international and domestic terrorists currently in Bureau of Prisons custody.” (UPI, Nov. 18)

    But Republicans attack that number as inaccurate. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the 300 figure “unsubstantiated.” President Bush’s former press secretary, Dana Perino, said the statistic is as “false as false gets.” But the number actually comes from a Bush administration document. In 2008, the Justice Department submitted a budget request citing “319 convictions or guilty pleas in terrorism or terrorism-related cases arising from investigations conducted primarily after September 11, 2001.”

    And the NYU Center on Law and Security conducted its own comprehensive study and came up with an even higher number. “If you had every single terrorism-related prosecution since 9-11 and you wanted to know the convictions, there would be 523,” said the center’s director, Karen Greenberg. Her database includes everything from terrorism-related passport violations to the case against accused 9-11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui.

    Many tallies of terrorism convictions include cases the government labeled as “terrorism-related” at the time of arrest—even if the connection to terrorism was tenuous at best. “Right after 9-11, the government was classifying people who in no way were terrorists,” says David Burnham, co-director of Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. “A woman was on an airline, and she kept hitting her call button. She surely terrorized the flight attendants, but she was not a terrorist. And she got arrested and was classified as a terrorist.”

    The NYU study found that those types of cases have become less common in recent years, and conviction rates have gone up. But Burnham cautioned that any study of terrorism convictions relies on subjective decisions about which cases to include and which to omit. “Depending on how you count,” he says, “you get different answers.”

    We especially love that Bush boys promiscuously labeled cases “terrorism-related” in order to hype the terrorist threat, and now wish to exclude those cases from the count to bolster their case that the civilian courts are inappropriate for terror trials.

  2. How many terrorists have the tribunals convicted?
    On Feb. 14, in an interview with ABC News’ “This Week,” Dick Cheney wimp-baited the Obama administration, boasting “I was a big supporter of waterboarding… I was a big supporter of the enhanced interrogation techniques…”

    The former vice president’s declaration closely mirrors admissions he made in December 2008 (to the Washington Times), when he said he personally authorized the “enhanced interrogation” (read: torture) of 33 suspected terrorist detainees and approved the waterboarding of three so-called “high-value” prisoners. (Truthout, Feb. 15)

    On Feb. 5, 2008, Reuters identified those three as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and senior al Qaeda leaders Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

    Cheney also told “This Week”: “I do see repeatedly examples that there are key members in the administration, like Eric Holder, for example, the attorney general, who still insists on thinking of terror attacks against the United States as criminal acts as opposed to acts of war, and that’s a—that’s a huge distinction.

    Contrary to the popular assumption that Cheney is exploiting here, the Center for American Progress Jan. 20 crunches the numbers to conclude “Criminal Courts Are Tougher on Terrorists than Military Detention.” Since their formation in 2001, the military commissions have only convicted three individuals—two of whom are already out of prison and living freely in their home countries.

    Australian David Hicks was the first convicted in a military tribunal when he entered into a plea agreement on material support for terrorism charges in March 2007. He was given a nine-month sentence, which he mostly served back at home in Australia. Salim Hamdan—convicted of material support for terrorism—received a five-month sentence and was sent back to his home in Yemen to serve the final months before being released in January 2009.

    The only person convicted in a military commission who remains behind bars is Ali al-Bahlul—al Qaeda’s top propagandist who was charged with soliciting murder and material support for terrorism. Bahlul only received his life sentence after he boycotted the entire trial process and was convicted without mounting a defense.

    The Bush administration originally said it wanted to try 80 terror suspects before the military tribunals.

    By contrast, John Walker Lindh, tried in the civil courts, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and will not be free until 2019. (NYT, Feb. 11)

    The 2009 Report Human Rights First presents statistical data on 119 international terrorism cases filed since 9/11 in which a total of 289 defendants were charged in the criminal justice system. Of the 214 defendants whose cases were resolved as of June 2, 2009, 195 were convicted either by verdict or by a guilty plea. This is a conviction rate of 91.121%, a slight increase over the 90.625% conviction rate reported in May of 2008.

    Joe Conason in the New York Observer Nov. 17 cited the above-mentioned Center for Law and Security report that 828 defendants have been indicted on terrorism-related charges since 2001. Of those indictments, trials are still pending against 235 defendants—and of the remaining 539 defendants, 523 were convicted either at trial or via plea. The single largest venue for terrorism trials is New York City, where 145 terrorism indictments have been filed. The Center also found in a previous study that the conviction rate in New York is higher than in the rest of the nation, and that sentencing in New York is also tougher. In the city’s federal courts, the conviction rate of individuals charged with terrorism involving a U.S. target is 100 percent.

    Michael Tomasky in The Guardian Jan. 7 cited the US Defense Department that 20 cases were initiated before the military tribunals. Given three convictions, Josh Hammon on Best of the Blogs arrives at a conviction rate of 15%—but most of those cases have been put on hold by the Obama administration.