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‘Years of delay’ saved lives

Did the Bush administration purposely hold off on prosecuting KSM, as Attorney General Eric Holder suggests? Of course. And the fact that Holder sees this as a mistake exposes the dangerous thinking of this administration.

By Marc A. Thiessen

In announcing President Obama’s decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of his accused 9/11 collaborators in civilian court, Attorney General Eric Holder took several swipes at President Bush for failing to prosecute these terrorists.

“After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice,” Holder declared in a news conference. A few days later he told Congress, “No more delay. It is time — it is past time — to finally act.”

Put aside, for a moment, the fact that KSM was not captured until six years ago. And put aside the fact that even if the Bush administration had wanted to try him immediately it could not have done so — because lawsuits (including those filed by Holder’s law firm, Covington & Burling) prevented KSM’s trial by military commission from proceeding until 2008.

Is Holder right? Did President Bush intentionally delay the prosecution of KSM and other accused 9/11 terrorists? He most certainly did. And the fact that Holder considers this a mistake exposes a dangerous mentality on the part of the Obama administration — one that increases the risk that our country will suffer another terrorist attack.

Thwarting future attacks

When KSM was captured in March 2003, he refused to answer questions, informing his captors: “I’ll tell you everything when I get to New York and see my lawyer.” But the Bush administration did not send KSM to New York. Instead, he was sent to a CIA “black site,” where he was questioned, not for evidence in a criminal trial but for intelligence about future terrorist attacks. When asked about his plans, he told the CIA, “Soon, you will know.” And he declared that Americans were weak, lacked resilience, and were unable to do what is necessary to prevent the terrorists from succeeding in their goals.

But after undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques” — including waterboarding — KSM became prolific. According to declassified documents, he provided information that led to the capture of a cell of Southeast Asian terrorists KSM had tasked to hijack a plane and fly it into the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles. He provided information that led to the capture of Ammar al-Baluchi and Walid bin Attash, just as they were completing plans to blow up the U.S. consulate and Western residences in Karachi, Pakistan. He provided information that helped lead to the arrest of Sayfullah Paracha and his son Uzair Paracha, two businessmen with whom KSM was plotting to smuggle explosives into the USA. He provided information that helped break up an al-Qaeda cell that was developing anthrax for terrorist attacks inside the U.S.

In addition, KSM explained al-Qaeda’s operating structure, financing, communications and logistics. He described the traits and profiles that al-Qaeda sought in Western operatives, how al-Qaeda might select targets, what probable targets were and the likely methods of attack. He gave U.S. officials a picture of the terrorist organization as seen from the inside, at a time when we knew almost nothing about the enemy that had hit us on 9/11.

In other words, the delay in KSM’s prosecution, and that of other CIA detainees, saved lives.

Moreover, were it not for the delays in prosecution to allow CIA interrogations, Holder would have no one to put on trial. Ramzi Binalshibh was captured only because of information the CIA elicited after waterboarding a terrorist named Abu Zubaydah. Binalshibh and Zubaydah then gave the CIA information that led to the capture of KSM and Mustafa al-Hawsawi. KSM in turn provided the CIA information that led to the capture of al-Baluchi and Attash. If not for CIA interrogations, these dangerous terrorists might still be at large, planning new attacks instead of facing justice.

An offer Holder rejected

Only after KSM had been exhausted as an intelligence source did President Bush transfer him and 13 other terrorists to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for trial by military commission. Once the legal obstacles had been cleared in 2008, the commissions finally got underway. And when they did, KSM and his co-conspirators all offered to plead guilty before a military commission and proceed straight to execution.

With his decision to send them to civilian court, Holder has effectively rejected KSM’s guilty plea and told him, “No, Mr. Mohammed, first let us give you that stage you wanted in New York to rally jihadists, spread propaganda, and incite new attacks.” Indeed, a lawyer for one of the detainees has said that all five intend to plead not guilty “so they can have a trial and try to get their message out.” Were it not for Holder, they’d be on death row instead of preparing for a trial that will take years and make the O.J. Simpson case look like a traffic court hearing. And Holder chastises President Bush for delaying justice for 9/11 families?

The Bush administration’s first priority was not putting KSM on trial; it was getting intelligence so we could save lives. Under Obama and Holder, that is no longer America’s first priority. Today, the United States has given up the capability to effectively interrogate terrorists like KSM. We have returned to the failed law enforcement mentality of the 1990s, where we read terrorists their Miranda rights instead of questioning them to stop attacks. We are in greater danger as a result.

Marc A. Thiessen served in senior positions at the Pentagon and the White House from 2001 to 2009 and wrote President Bush’s Sept. 6, 2006, speech revealing the CIA interrogation program. His book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack, will be published in January by Regnery. He can be reached via twitter at www.twitter.com/marcthiessen

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