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Friday, June 27, 2003
The impact of a war that isn't always on
On June 17 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that U.S. Justice Department does not have to reveal the names of foreign nationals who were detained as part of anti-terrorist investigations after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks because doing so might, as the Justice Department argued, risk "national security." (Thanks to Jim Henley for the link.)
Two days later U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that Iyman Faris, a/k/a Mohammad Rauf "had pleaded guilty to providing material support and resources to al Qaeda and conspiracy for providing the terrorist organization with information about possible U.S. targets for attack." In an official statement issued that day on the plea, the Justice Department describes Faris as "a senior operational leader in al Qaeda" and says Faris has admitted to meeting Osama bin Laden and giving assistance to al Qaeda for the purpose of potential terrorist acts. Faris is reportedly a U.S. citizen.
On Monday the Justice Department changed the status of Ali Saleh Kahlah Al Marri, a citizen of Qatar, from that of a person facing criminal charges to that of "enemy combatant" because he is alleged to be tied with al Qaeda.
"The FBI Friday issued a 41-count indictment against 11 men charged with conspiracy to train for and participate in a violent jihad overseas," CNN reported today. " Nine of the defendants, who are ages 23 to 35, are U.S. citizens, and the others are a Yemeni and a non-resident alien from Pakistan, said Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia." Actually it was a grand jury that issued the indictment.)
These cases are representative of an inconsistency in how the U.S. is waging the "war on terror." Although the U.S. has been, for all intents and purposes, at war since September 11, 2001, the U.S., by which I mean the Bush Administration, has been unwilling to apply the "enemy combatant" status, under which a person would have to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and can not be tried criminally, to all who are captured in the "war on terror." After all, what is a person like Faris who has met with Osama and plotted terrorist actions against the U.S. if not the "enemy" in the "war on terror"?
So far in the "war on terror" we have seen that U.S. citizen captured in a foreign country can be treated as an alleged criminal or an "enemy combatant." If captured in the U.S., a U.S. citizen can also be tried as an alleged criminal or an "enemy combatant." The same is true of foreign nationals captured in the U.S.; they can be treated a alleged criminal or an "enemy combatant." Foreign nationals captured outside the U.S. have so far been treated as "enemy combatants" but Ashcroft indicated that this could change in his June 5 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary that followed his prepared statement.
Unfortunately Ashcroft's full testimony does not appear to be available online but, according to my memory of watching the hearing the following day on C-Span, Ashcroft said that the reason for this discrepancy in the use of criminal trials and "enemy combatant" status was that some allied countries were not willing to release alleged terrorists to the U.S. if these individuals were not guaranteed due process. This is laughable as an explanation since it does nothing to explain why al Qaeda members captured in the U.S. have received each treatment but it does get at an important point; rather than being a statement of fact, the status of "enemy combatant" has become a political tool for the Bush Administration. Figuring out why which status was used in each and every case is likely an impossible task, but it remains possible to see how the ability of the Bush Administration to vacillate on this matter benefits Team Bush.
Few words have greater sting in the U.S. than "criminal." A regular feature of the "war on terror" has been the Bush Administration's desire to label the enemies in the "war on terror" as being "criminal." By trying some of enemies in the "war on terror" in criminal courts, the Bush Administration is able to further this claim and, both implicitly and explicitly, label the "terrorists" -whoever they are deemed to be at the moment- as evil. But by having the option of not going to criminal trial, the Bush Administration is able to only pursue criminal cases it believes it can win and thus avoid the potential embarrassment of losing a case. (It arguably would do quite a bit to discredit the "war on terror" if a group a U.S. citizens said it wasn't convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" that those deemed as "terrorists" are in fact deserving of that label.) Even if a concern about secrets getting out and harming national security are valid, and they very well may be, this political consideration should not be discounted.
Ultimately this matter reflects an incongruity in the larger "war on terror," which has been conceived so broadly that it could go forever but where, besides al Qaeda, which has clearly been shown to be unsatisfactory to the Bush Administration as the sole enemy, there is no clear opponent and any potential opponent has to be built up before they can be taken down. To ignore the "war" part is to give up the ghost. To play the "war" card too heavily is make the imperial ambitions all too known.