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White House undeterred after Ghailani terror case verdict
"Despite that fact, though, the jury handed down a sentence that will lead to a very long sentence - 20 years to life," Miller said.
But the verdict was still a blow to administration officials, who were quietly confident that Ghailani would be found guilty on all charges. For some, a conviction on only one count amounted to a close call. Had he been cleared of all charges, the administration would probably have been forced to take Ghailani back into military custody rather than see him released.
Ghailani, a former Islamic cleric, was captured in Pakistan in July 2004 and turned over to the CIA, which held him in several secret prisons overseas before he and 13 other high-value detainees were transferred to Cuba in September 2006.
At a 2007 military hearing at Guantanamo Bay, Ghailani had presented himself as an unwitting participant in the embassy bombings. At the end of the four-week trial, one of his attorneys told the jury he was a "dupe" who was fooled by al-Qaeda conspirators into buying a truck and gas tanks used in the Tanzanian attack.
Analysis of the verdict is likely to focus on U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan's decision to exclude the testimony of a Tanzanian whom the prosecution had described as a potentially "giant witness." The man was expected to say that he sold Ghailani explosives used in the attack.
But the judge ruled that the government learned of the witness only through the use of coercive interrogations at CIA prisons and that the participation of the witness would taint the process.
"The court has not reached this conclusion lightly," Kaplan wrote, barring the testimony. "It is acutely aware of the perilous nature of the world we live in. But the constitution is the rock upon which our nation rests. We must follow it not only when it is convenient, but when fear and danger beckon in a different direction." The prosecution did not seek to introduce any statements Ghailani made to the CIA.
The verdict, on top of that ruling, will be seized upon by those who argue that high-value detainees who were interrogated by the CIA should be tried only in military commissions, where the rules were written to be less stringent on the admission of evidence stemming from harsh interrogations.
"One of 285 counts is not exactly a track record for a prosecution team to be proud of," said Kirk Lippold, former commander of the USS Cole, which was attacked by al-Qaeda in 2000. "I think the administration is now in a position where they have to get serious about using military commissions. This case sends a clear and unmistakable signal about using civilian courts: It didn't work."
But human rights activists who have long called for the use of federal trials said the verdict vindicated their approach.
"Conspiracy to blow up an embassy is a serious conviction," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch. "I hope the conclusion people draw from this is that this is the way to get swift and sure justice."
He added: "The original sin here is torture. It would have haunted a military trial, too, with likely the same result. The only difference is that in this courtroom, Ghailani was convicted with legitimacy and finality."
Administration officials appear not to be drawing that conclusion. Although there is little support in the administration for the widespread and exclusive use of military commissions to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, there is growing recognition that the degree of political opposition to holding federal trials is insuperable.
email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer Jerry Markon and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.