To the White House, the capture earlier this month of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law is another feather in the cap of the administration’s self-touted terrorism fighting chops.
To congressional Republicans, the capture of al-Qaeda propagandist Sulaiman Abu Gaith threatens to go down in history as a giant missed opportunity at best and deadly national security flub at worst — thanks to the “apparent rush” to bring him to trial in a New York federal court.
“There is broad consensus across the United States government, at the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence community agrees that the best way to protect our national security interests is to prosecute Abu Ghaith in an Article 3 court,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said when questioned about the method of trial March 8.
“As the president has articulated himself many times, it’s his view that whenever we can use the Article 3 courts to get justice, we’ll do so,” he continued, adding that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was not consulted in the decision to try a terrorist blocks from Ground Zero.
Abu Ghaith left Iran earlier this year and crossed into Turkey, where the Turks — who reportedly didn’t want to extradite him to America on the chance that he’d face the death penalty — put the wanted man on a plane to Kuwait and U.S. authorities intercepted him on a stopover in Jordan.
The next day — March 8 — Abu Ghaith was in a New York court to plead not guilty to charges of conspiracy to kill Americans.
“No amount of distance or time will weaken our resolve to bring America’s enemies to justice,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “To violent extremists who threaten the American people and seek to undermine our way of life, this arrest sends an unmistakable message: There is no corner of the world where you can escape from justice because we will do everything in our power to hold you accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
The administration was unwilling to send him to the corner of the world housing other al-Qaeda brethren, Guantanamo. Lawmakers are also alarmed at how much information authorities may have not been able to extract from him on the flight back from Jordan. Prosecutors say they have a 22-page statement including conversations from that flight.
On Friday, the chairmen of four House committees — House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) — wrote President Obama to ask why he seemed so intent on tossing away a potentially golden intelligence mine.
“We write to express our grave misgivings about your Administration’s apparent rush to bring senior al-Qa’ida member and spokesman, Sulaiman Bu Ghaith, to the United States to stand trial in criminal court, perhaps missing a key intelligence opportunity,” the congressmen wrote.
Abu Ghaith was close to bin Laden around the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, fled Afghanistan in 2002, and joined other senior al-Qaeda operative in Iran.
“He appears to be a member of al-Qa’ida’s management council, a shadow of al-Qa’ida leadership body,” the chairmen continued. “…Unfortunately, given the limited length of time Bu Ghaith was in U.S. custody prior to his appearance in court, we have little confidence that intelligence professional had the time necessary to question him seriously about these connections or plans. Even low-level terrorists captured and held by the U.S. military have been subjected to significantly more questioning than Bu Ghaith appears to have been.”
“The failure to provide an adequate mechanism for the United States to acquire sensitive intelligence information from Bu Ghaith prior to Mirandizing him and bringing him to criminal court suggests a fundamental lack of a coherent national security strategy. It seems the Administration’s interagency planning, coordination, and considered policy options were disturbingly limited.”
They requested a briefing with Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for the chairmen and ranking Democrats on their four committees to get answers to two main questions: How, after such a short time in custody, can the administration know all possible intelligence was gleaned from Abu Ghaith, and “how the administration can best ensure the protection of U.S. interests from continued terrorist threats if our intelligence officers are not allowed sufficient access to high-value detainees.”
“Blinding ourselves to possible intelligence about terrorism threats does not make them go away,” Rogers, McKeon, Royce, and Goodlatte chided Obama.