Republicans have lashed out against the Obama administration’s decision to bring a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden to New York City for trial, a high-profile move that would help the president follow through on one of his earliest campaign pledges.
One of the unmet promises from President Barack Obama’s first term involved closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and bringing suspects to the continental United States for trial.
Two days after his first inauguration, the president signed an executive order calling for the closure of the military prison. But bipartisan resistance from lawmakers, who feared trials for terror suspects on domestic soil, scuttled efforts to shutter Guantanamo, leaving prisoners and detainees in legal limbo.
Four years later, Guantanamo remains in operation, and military tribunals – 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial is ongoing – continue at the naval base in Cuba. But the Obama administration’s decision to arraign a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, in federal court on Friday in New York marked maybe its most high-profile example of working to shift terror prosecutions to civilian courts.
And already, Republicans are mounting stiff resistance to the move.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who on Thursday took to the Senate floor to defend Obama’s prerogatives in waging drone strikes, vowed to fight the administration’s decision to bring Abu Ghaith to New York.
"The American people and their representatives in Congress have been clear that they do not want foreign members of al Qaeda brought to the United States,” he said in a statement. “The Obama administration's decision to try Abu Ghaith in a New York district court clearly contravenes the will of the American people. This decision by the Obama administration will not go unchallenged."
The issue of Guantanamo is one on which Republicans have built a rare political advantage over Obama on an issue of foreign policy. Their dogged opposition to terror trials on U.S. soil has won over a handful of Democrats, thereby stymying the administration’s ability to execute one of the president’s first official orders.
And following Abu Ghaith’s “not guilty” plea this morning to charges of plotting to kill Americans, Republicans have piled on in short order.
“What has not changed since the issuance of the president's executive orders is that terrorists working to attack the United States are enemy combatants, and if captured should be placed in military custody where they can be interrogated,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement. “The decision of the president to import Sulaiman Abu Ghaith into the United States solely for civilian prosecution makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay despite the circumstances.”
Added Republican Rep. Peter King, the New York congressman who’s been vocally critical of terror trials in New York: "While a federal court trial of Abu Ghaith in lower Manhattan would not present the same security issues as a trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, I strongly believe as a matter of policy that military tribunals are the proper venue for enemy combatants. If the Abu Ghaith trial does go forward in federal court it must not be used as a precedent for future enemy combatants who should be tried at Guantanamo."
With Congress out of town, few Democrats have chimed in on the Abu Ghaith decision; he was only extradited on Thursday. Several Democrats, like Manhattan Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., have in the past been vocally supportive of civilian trials in New York.
"I support the government bringing this prosecution in civilian court and expect that the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York will successfully prosecute Abu Ghaith and put him away for the rest of his life," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate intelligence panel, said in a statement. She has previously supported trials for terror suspects in the United States. "The bottom line is the federal criminal court system works. Hundreds of international terrorists have been convicted in our federal courts since 9/11 and are locked away in heavily fortified federal prisons."
Deputy White House press secretary Josh Earnest, though, used Friday’s briefing with reporters to push back against criticism of the move.
“The intelligence community agrees that the best way to protect our national security interests is to prosecute Abu Ghaith in an Article III court,” Earnest said, later adding: “This is somebody who's going to be held accountable for his crimes and will be done -- and that will be done in accordance with the laws and values of this country, and it will be done so in a pretty efficient way.”