The Evolution of Terrorism Prosecutions: My Speech at the Federal Bar Council

Next month, we will mark the 24th anniversary of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

The prosecutions that followed, including the one I was privileged to lead against the terrorist cell of Omar Abdel Rahman (“the Blind Sheikh”), were pivotal in the development of American national security policy. Up until the 9/11 attacks, almost all of these prosecutions took place in the jurisdiction of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

On Wednesday night, I participated in a Federal Bar Council program on “The Second Circuit and Terrorism” along with former Attorney General Michael Mukasey (the former chief judge of the SDNY who tried the Blind Sheikh case), Judge Joseph Bianco (my former SDNY colleague who later served as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Bush Justice Department), and Roger L. Stavis (who represented Sayyid Nosair, one of the principal defendants in the Blind Sheikh case) in a panel moderated by Fordham Law School Professor Karen Greenberg (who directs Fordham’s Center on National Security). Below is my speech at the start of the program.

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Since I don’t get back to my old haunts nearly as much as I’d like to, it is a thrill to be here in our grand courthouse in the Southern District of New York, among so many old friends and colleagues. It is a real privilege to participate in this panel on “The Second Circuit and Terrorism,” with people I’ve learned so much from over the last -- I don’t even want to think about how many years have gone by. Let’s just say there was a lot more hair on my head, and a lot less of, well, me, when I first met most of them.

My role at the beginning of this evening is to give a brief overview of how terrorism prosecutions have evolved. What happened here in the Second Circuit, and particularly in the cases that originally sprung out of our SDNY office after the World Trade Center was bombed in February 1993, is ingrained in the foundation of American national security policy -- both in terms of what the judicial system could achieve, and where other components of government needed to step up and fill security voids.

In addressing this topic, I’ve always thought it important to point out that when terrorism arrived in our homeland in the systematic way we have experienced it in the last quarter-century, nobody sat around the table and thought about how we should respond to it. There was no grand policy debate asking, “Is this a crime, or is it a war?” “Is our civilian process of criminal prosecution up to this, or do we need to resort to military justice and the ancient laws and customs of war?”