Image: courtroom drawing of Tanzanian Ahmed Ghailani
Shirley Shepard  /  AFP - Getty Images
Tanzanian Ahmed Ghailani, 36, faces a minimum sentence of 20 years after his conspiracy conviction in the first civilian trial of a former Guantanamo Bay inmate. He was found not guilty on a slew of charges including conspiracy to plot with al-Qaida to kill U.S. citizens in the attacks against the Tanzania and Kenya embassies, in which 224 people died.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/18/2010 6:07:53 PM ET 2010-11-18T23:07:53

President Barack Obama is still determined to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, despite criticism over his civilian prosecution of terror suspects, the White House said on Thursday.

"The president remains committed to closing Guantanamo Bay to ensure that it is no longer the recruiting poster that it is right now for al-Qaida," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a news briefing.

A civilian jury on Wednesday acquitted a man once held at Guantanamo of all but one of 280 charges related to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.

Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani still faces a minimum sentence of 20 years for conspiring in the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. 

Critics say the verdict raised questions over the administration's ability to successfully prosecute remaining Guantanamo Bay terrorism suspects, and what that meant for the facility's eventual closure.

Obama has already failed to meet an election campaign pledge to shut it down in the first year of his presidency and transfer its inmates to prisons in the United States.

In some ways, the conviction was a vindication for an administration that believes the judicial system established by the Constitution has proved itself capable of handling terrorism cases. And predictions of new terrorist attacks and huge police expenses surrounding the trial never materialized.

Ghailani now faces 20 years to life in prison, longer than three of the four sentences handed down by military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay.

Story: Gitmo detainee cleared of all but 1 count in civilian court

Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller described the outcome in the case against Ghailani as "another in a long line of verdicts where federal civilian courts have shown the ability to deliver fair trials and long sentences."

Miller told reporters that the administration will continue to rely on a combination of civilian courts and military commissions.

"We make those decisions based on facts, based on the law," he said. "And we'll continue to work through that with the detainees who are still at Guantanamo." Miller did not discuss how any specific detainee would be handled.

But opponents of Obama's plans to try terrorism suspects in civilian courts immediately seized on the split decision as evidence that the administration's plans were misguided and naive.

"This is a tragic wake-up call to the Obama administration to immediately abandon its ill-advised plan to try Guantanamo terrorists" in federal civilian courts, Rep. Peter King told The New York Times. "We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantanamo."

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King is a New York Republican who is expected to be the next chairman of the Homeland Security Committee when Republicans take control of the House early next year.

The administration had hoped for an overwhelming conviction to help ease congressional opposition to Obama's long-stymied plan for moving the detainees to U.S. soil. The administration must notify Congress before any transfer, and Republicans have said they would block such efforts.

"There's no way they're going to get it now that Republicans are in charge," King said of the plans to try detainees in the U.S.

Harder to close prison
Despite the acquittals in Ghailani's case, which included murder counts for each of the 224 people killed in the bombings, the Justice Department said it was pleased he faces up to life in prison and said it would seek that sentence.

And some in favor of the government's use of the federal court system for detainee trials said the verdict should not be looked upon as a disaster.

Mason Clutter is one such proponent. Counsel of the Rule of Law Program at the Constitution Project, a bipartisan non-profit group, she told The Times that Ghailani will be in prison for a long time and have fewer avenues for appeal than had he been tried in the military system.

"The system worked here," she told the newspaper. "I don't think we judge success based on the number of convictions that were received. I think we judge success based on fair prosecutions consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law."

Clutter added that many of the arguments usually used to reject civilian trials in favor of military tribunals, such as high security costs, defendant's grandstanding and release of classified information, did not come to pass in this case.

Still, senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions, conceded that the one-count conviction, combined with big electoral wins for Republicans this month, will make it harder to close the prison.

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Handful of options
Administration officials believe there are only a handful of options for closing Guantanamo Bay:

  • Prosecute the detainees. Some, like Ghailani, could face criminal trials. Others could face military commissions. Regardless, the administration wants those trials in the U.S., not at Guantanamo.
  • Transfer some prisoners to other countries. Many already have been cleared for release. But Yemeni citizens make up the largest contingent, and the U.S. doesn't trust Yemen to monitor them if they are released. Two failed airline bombings originating in Yemen in the past year have made such release efforts even more difficult.
  • Hold prisoners indefinitely. Top administration officials have said they don't like the idea but would consider it in some form, if the detainees were held inside the U.S. with some review by courts.

Ghailani's conviction does not make any of those options easier. When Obama announced, days after his election, that he would close Guantanamo within a year, he had hoped to move detainees to a refurbished old prison in Illinois.

Even if, somehow, that plan were to get resurrected early next year, much of 2011 would be spent renovating the facility. Actually transferring detainees would get pushed back to 2012, a presidential election year in which political differences are amplified and compromises are rare.

The Ghailani case also did little to resolve the question of what will happen to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other masterminds of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

The Justice Department had planned to prosecute those cases in civilian courts, but the administration reversed course amid political opposition. The move left a sour taste with some prosecutors, who felt the White House was letting political considerations influence the department, a criticism Democrats often lobbed at President George W. Bush.

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Ghailani, like Mohammed, was held for years in a secret CIA prison overseas and received some of the harshest interrogation tactics. His trial was seen as a test of whether those actions would sink the case or whether prosecutors could salvage a conviction.

A federal judge prohibited prosecutors from calling a key witness in the Ghailani case, saying the witness had been identified while Ghailani was interrogated at the CIA prison.

Prosecutors could face the same challenge in the Sept. 11 trials, though many have been asking for years to plead guilty.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who is seen as key to any deal to close Guantanamo, said late Wednesday that he was disappointed by the Ghailani verdict and said the government was endangering the nation "by criminalizing the war."

"We are at war with al-Qaida," Graham said. "Members of the organization and their associates should be treated as warriors, not common criminals."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Terror suspect's attorney 'surprised' by verdict

  1. Closed captioning of: Terror suspect's attorney 'surprised' by verdict

    >>> company." what to do about terror suspects is back and back in a bad way after the trial of a former gitmo detainee. one headline screams conviction and one acquittal. both are actually true. he was congivicted of a single conspiracy role for the bombings that killed 224 people, including a dozen americans . but he was cleared of another 284 counts, including every murder count. this is all reignited the debate over whether terror suspects should be tried in the traditional justice system in civilian courts or before military tribunals . let's bring in steve who is ghailani's attorney and also with us our company karen hunter and rick lassio. thank you for being here.

    >> happy to be here.

    >> let me ask you, first, steve , what was your reaction to the verdict?

    >> to say that we were not surprised would probably be an underestimate, but not completely surprised. the case was probably legally sufficient going in, at least that's what we thought.

    >> surprised but you thought there would be more charges that he was convicted of?

    >> surprised because sitting where we were foothills of the world trade center , most lawyers don't expect to have a jury or get a jury, despite what they say who can be fair and apply the law as the judge gave it to them.

    >> there are people who look at this and say this verdict is somewhat contradictory. your client is convicted of conspiring and, yet, not convicted of any of the deaths. do you think this was, in some way, a verdict brokered by jurors? what do you think happened here?

    >> one indication early that there was some sort of a deadlock, but that was very early on in the deliberations. there is really no way to say whether or not that stayed throughout the jurors. the jurors asked some very important questions throughout the process. they had some questions and asked for some rebags about real important stuff that the defense had been talking about and eventually they asked the legal question that really decided the case. took us about three hours after discussing it with judge kaplan and the government prosecutor to resolve it and eventually he charged the jury in a way that we had requested and shortly after that there was a verdict. extensively in his favor.

    >> rick, so many people watching this because the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks is potentially going to be tried and the question is where and how. what does this say to you about this debate about civilian courts over military tribunals ?

    >> this particular defendant had a great legal team. what you're looking at right now is the potential things to come for khalid shaikh mohammed the self-described mastermind of 9/11 and whether they belong in the civilian courtroom or in a military tribunals where they do get due process . in my mind, i think it puts us in a tough spot. if khalid shaikh mohammed is tried in downtown manhattan and he's acquitted, do you let him go and thereby undermining the law or do you keep him and equally undermine the respect for the law? either way it's a lose, lose.

    >> let me read you a statement from someone you know well, congressman peter king . "this tragic verdict, tragic verdict he calls it demonstrates the absolute insanity of the obama administration's decision to try al qaeda terrorists in civilian courts. this is a tragic wake-up call to the obama administration to immediately abandon its plan to try guantanamo terrorists like the admitted 9/11 mastermind khalid shake omommed in federal civilian courts."

    >> people are politicizing this and we're america and standprinciples. you should get a trial by the jury of your peers. these are very distinct principals that america s that america is all about and people in new york city decided that he should be a acquitted of 280 some counts and guilty on one. the system works and anybody that is trying to make this an obama issue is kind of undermining americans and the people that sat on that jury and made decisions that i think they really made from their heart and from what the evidence presented to them. told them to do. so, either we're americans and we follow certain rules or we don't.

    >> karen, steve , thanks to you. rick, thank you. rick and karen will stick with us. you said you're finally going to go home and get back to your life.

    >> great being here.

    >> no appeal?

    >> there will be a number of issues that are raised, we're not sure whether or not this count could stand. there's certainly a number of legal issues that if he is sentenced one day that will probably end up before the supreme court .

    >> so not exactly back to your regular life.

    >> it's not quite over yet. there's a lot more to do, but a lot having to do with sentence issues with regard to what happened to him while he was in custody for six years. certainly raised and considered by judge kaplan, should there be a sentence in this case.

Photos: Guantanamo Bay detention center

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  1. A U.S. military guard arrives for work at Camp Delta in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the facility in one year and review each detainee’s case individually, but he has missed the deadline by months and has struggled to transfer, try or release the remaining detainees. (These pictures have been reviewed by the U.S. military.) (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6 in the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. The U.S. military currently holds 183 detainees at Guantanamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The detention center has held nearly 780 detainees in an assortment of camps that were built to accommodate different levels of security. In Camp 6, detainees spend at least 22 hours a day in single-occupancy cells. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In this picture, a detainee stands in Guantanamo’s Camp 6, his face obscured by a wire fence. There are strict rules on the publication of photographs of detainees – any distinguishing features or clear pictures of detainees’ faces are not allowed past Guantanamo’s gates. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A detainee reads a magazine in the library at Camp 6. One of the obstacles President Obama faces in shutting down the detention facility is that Congress has blocked funding for a plan that would transfer some detainees to a prison in the United States. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing each detainee’s case individually and categorizing them into three groups: those who face trial, those who will be transferred to detention facilities in other countries, and those who are deemed a danger but cannot released or tried because of sensitive evidence – and must continue to be held. There are 48 detainees in this category. Here, detainees prepare to eat lunch at Camp 6. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. In this photo, a detainee attends a class in "life skills" inside Camp 6. In November 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Sept. 11 suspects would be prosecuted in a federal court in New York City, setting off a heated debate that put the White House on the defense and has forced it to reconsider the plan. The Obama administration has also designated six detainees for trial by military tribunal, including Canadian Omar Khadr, whose trial will be the first at Guantanamo during the Obama presidency. (Brennan Linsley / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. Navy guard prepares to escort a detainee after a "life skills" class in Camp 6. Meantime, the war crimes tribunal convened in Guantanamo on April 28, 2010, to decide what evidence can be used against Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was just 15 when he was detained in Afghanistan in 2002. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Congressional Republicans and some Democrats oppose the plan to prosecute detainees in federal courts because that would give suspects full U.S. legal rights and could lead to the release of dangerous terrorists. Supporters, however, say military courts unfairly limit defendants’ rights and contend that federal courts are just as capable of bringing suspects to justice. In this photo, U.S. Army guards are briefed at the Guantanamo Bay detention center on March 30, 2010. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A U.S. Army soldier patrols past a guard tower at Camp Delta. A final difficulty in closing the detention facility is skepticism about how well some countries would monitor and rehabilitate detainees transferred there – and whether they would be at risk of being recruited into terror networks. Yemen, in particular, is under scrutiny after the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is believed to have been trained by al-Qaida in Yemen. The Obama administration has since suspended all transfers to Yemen. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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