President Obama’s whirlwind campaign stop in Afghanistan this week, exactly a year after Usama Bin Laden’s death, may make the commander in chief appear tough in punishing those responsible for the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. But looks can be deceiving.
As we proudly celebrate the Freedom Tower reclaiming New York’s skyline, literally rising from the ashes of America’s darkest day, and recall the sense of justice that Navy SEALs gave us one year ago this week, we still have some unfinished business at Guantanamo to take care of.
After Mr. Obama tried his best to close the Gitmo detention facilities and derail military commissions, the president has now reluctantly pressed the "re-set" button for the trial of accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) and four alleged co-conspirators.
On Saturday, May 5, KSM and his inner-circle -- Walid Bin Attash, Ramzi Binalshibh, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Mustafah al Hawsawi will once again face a military judge to be formally arraigned for plotting the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
And while that’s a good thing, regrettably it’s been a full 47 months since the five were first arraigned at Gitmo for the same crime.
So why the nearly 4-year delay in starting over again?
I’d blame it on a mix of arrogance and naiveté from Team Obama.
In his bid to be the anti-Bush commander in chief, then-Senator Obama portrayed Guantanamo and military commissions in such stark, yet misleading, terms on the campaign trail that he had to take bold action once he took – now matter how ill-advised they were.
Case in point – on the day of his inauguration, January 20, 2009, Mr. Obama took a break from half-a-dozen or so inaugural balls to call Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and order the immediate suspension of all military commissions.
It mattered little to our newly minted presidnet that KSM had been in the midst of courtroom discussions with a military Judge -- Marine Col. Ralph Kohlmann -- that same week about pleading guilty and receiving the death penalty.
Obama followed up just two days later with executive orders to close Guantanamo detention facilities within a year, and to ban all coercive interrogation techniques.
It also mattered little to the president that Guantanamo had actually kept America safe by keeping hundreds of the world’s most dangerous Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters and facilitators off the streets, while gaining valuable intelligence into their networks still at war with our country.
Nor did it matter much to the president and his new team that CIA coercive interrogations helped prevent untold numbers of civilian casualties as information gleaned from them led to stopping plots and rounding up key figures within Al Qaeda and the leaders of Indonesia’s Jemaa Islamiya, the architects of the Bali and Jakarta bombings.
For the record, only three detainees had ever been waterboarded -- none while in detention at Gitmo. In addition to KSM, Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda’s top facilitator, and Abd al-Rahim Al Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the attack on USS Cole were both subjected to it. As were tens of thousands of our military personnel over the years through Search Evasion Resistance & Escape schools created for pilots and flight crews.
In 2008, given all the politically motivated hype against Gitmo, coercive interrogations and isolated cases of detainee abuse that reached a fever pitch during the presidential campaign, what did matter to Mr. Obama was ideology over practicality.
He spoke eloquently in lofty terms about “restoring the rule of law” and “adhering to our values,” while his surrogates -- led by Eric Holder and his pals in Hollywood -- implied that at best the Bush administration was led by out-of-control cowboys, and at worst, torturers.
Such arrogance fostered a lack of appreciation for the Bush administration’s success in rounding up terrorists and preventing future attacks.
And that in turn fostered a naïve decision-making process -- like halting the 9/11 military commission that was on the verge of a guilty verdict, then scrapping it entirely, and then trying to move the process into a civilian trial in New York City.
Such a move would have been a disaster in the making, potentially costing taxpayers upwards of $200 million a year while turning lower Manhattan into a fortress with roadblocks everywhere and a massive police presence.
Not only that but a civilian trial would have given KSM a virtual megaphone for spewing anti-American, anti-Israel propaganda that could have inspired hundreds of disgruntled “lone wolves” to rally behind his espoused ideology and try to blow up civilians.
It's important to bear in mind that KSM considers himself a heroic revolutionary defending the oppressed, just like George Washington. And he’s charismatic in his struggle to fight against power, think Ché Guevara in Al Qaeda's garb.
Fortunately, opposition from Republicans in Congress and grassroots activism turned even New Yorkers, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, against the civilian trial.
So here we are – four years later and basically back to square one. Though it’s been far too long for justice, at least it now seems within reach again.
Mr. Obama has finally made the right decision after all. Too bad it took years, smearing his predecessor’s administration in the meantime and pursuing every other option before doing so.
J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-2009. He personally witnessed the Sept. 11 military commission pre-trial hearings at Guantanamo from June 2008-January 2009. He most recently served as the Vice President, Communications and Foreign Policy/National Security Advisor to Herman Cain’s 2012 Republican Presidential Campaign. Follow on Twitter @ Jeffrey_Gordon.