Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Morgenthau on the Terrorist Trials

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau speaks to Brian Lehrer about military versus civilian trials for KSM and terrorists in general.

Morgenthau believes civilian courts should be used because they have "more experience handling complicated cases." But he doesn't believe they should be held in Manhattan. I'm not sure why experience should be a major issue (and neither our civilian nor military courts have any experience with a "suspect" - I guess we have to call him - like KSM).

Lehrer asks Morgenthau about Miranda rights, and this is where the former DA really goes off the rails, in my opinion. He believes we ought to treat terrorists fairly, because it will help our cause in converting the Arab world to democracy. As far as it goes, that's fine, but he doesn't seem to understand the issues involved:

Lehrer: But is anything lost, say, in being able to learn what's really going on in Yemen after that suspect on Christmas Day was arrested by reading him Miranda rights and letting him have a civilian lawyer after just a few hours [actually, 50 minutes - J]? Do you think anything is lost in terms of national security?

Morgenthau: No, I think we should have just been listening to his father, and we would have gotten all the information that was necessary.

I'm not sure here whether Morgenthau is being flippant to avoid answering an uncomfortable question, or really believes this. But it's a shame Lehrer didn't press this point at least a bit. To put the case in terms that a former Manhattan DA ought to understand, suppose a low-ranking member of the Gambino crime family was arrested while attempting to carry out a hit. This arrest has value in unwinding other Gambino plots. It makes no difference whether the hitman's father turned him in; that's just a one-time lucky break. Real intelligence can't just be based on lucky breaks. Surely Morgenthau knows this.

Lehrer asks Morgenthau about this clip by Joe Biden:

Looking at the evidence that has been made available to me as part of the executive branch of the prosecuting team [I don't know exactly what Biden means here, but I think we get his drift - J], I am absolutely convinced - I am absolutely convinced - that [KSM] will be put away for a long, long time.

Morgenthau believes this is inappropriate, which of course it is. It undermines the whole point he made earlier that showcasing a fair trial for KSM would help to convert the Arab world to our cause. Surely seeing our President, Vice President, and Attorney General all agree that KSM is definitely guilty and will be convicted negates any positive effect the trial might have in that regard. If convicted, they can call it a show trial (and they'll have a point). If not convicted... well, we needn't worry about that, because it won't happen. And that's the problem. The Obama administration has gotten themselves into an untenable position, where it's politically impossible to allow an acquittal, but diplomatically unhelpful to make one impossible. The whole thing could have been avoided by simply finishing the military trial that was already underway when Obama was inaugurated.

Morgenthau tries to burnish his anti-terrorism cred with this anecdote:

Morgenthau: I was on the receiving end of seventeen suicide attacks - seventeen - they called them kamikaze attacks in those days. I was on a picket station on a destroyer in Okinawa. So I'm not soft on these guys, and I know what our people have gone through in dealing with them. But I think we want to be known as a country that is fair.

Lehrer: Do you see a moral difference between the suicide bombers who were the kamikazes for Japan in World War II, and these suicide bombers [like KSM]?

Morgenthau: No.

This is a stunning conclusion. The kamikazes in WWII flew aircraft with Japanese emblems on them, in a war zone. It's certainly true that they did horrific damage to American forces, and it's understandable that someone who fought against them, and lost friends to them, would view them negatively. But there simply is a difference between the kamikazes, who flew military aircraft into military targets in the midst of a declared war, and the terrorists who masqueraded as civilians, took over civilian aircraft, and flew them into civilian buildings. That a former DA can't see that, or won't recognize it, is troubling in the extreme.

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