Bush's Idea of Swift Justice

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 7, 2008; 11:51 AM

Two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and after almost no consultation with anyone outside Vice President Cheney's office, President Bush signed an executive order setting up an extra-judicial system of military commissions, ostensibly to bring tough and swift justice to terrorists.

Nearly seven years, a series of Supreme Court rulings, and multiple congressional capitulations later, a somewhat modified system finally rendered its first decision yesterday, in the case of a minor al Qaeda functionary. It was at best a mixed verdict for everybody.

Jerry Markon writes in The Washington Post: "A military jury on Wednesday found a former driver for Osama bin Laden guilty of supporting terrorism but not of conspiring in terrorist attacks, handing the Bush administration a partial victory in the first U.S. war crimes trial in a half a century.

"The verdict, reached after about eight hours of deliberations over three days, only intensified the debate over whether Salim Ahmed Hamdan's conviction was preordained in an unfair system -- or whether military trials are appropriate for people accused of committing heinous acts against the United States.

"The administration seized on the acquittal to defend its military justice system against accusations that it was politicized and drawn up to ensure convictions. Pentagon and White House officials said they are satisfied with the result.

"'We're pleased that Salim Hamdan received a fair trial,' White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. 'The military commission system is a fair and appropriate legal process for prosecuting detainees.' . . .

"Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who attended the trial as one of several human rights observers, ridiculed the administration for inaugurating the military system on 'a marginal figure.' . . .

"'We were told that Guantanamo was necessary because these were the world's most dangerous terrorists,' said Wizner, who criticized the Pentagon for revealing little about U.S. interrogation techniques. 'Salim Hamdan is not one of the world's most dangerous terrorists.'"

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times: "The conviction of Mr. Hamdan, who was part of a select group of drivers and bodyguards for Mr. bin Laden until 2001, was a long-sought, if qualified, victory for the Bush administration, which has been working to begin military commission trials here for nearly seven years.

"The six senior military officers on the panel deliberated for eight hours over three days. Four votes in a secret ballot were required for conviction.

"Critics have long contended that the military commission system does not meet American standards, partly because it allows hearsay evidence and evidence derived through coercive interrogation methods.

"The verdict did not mute the critics. Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said the trial 'revealed what is common knowledge -- the military commissions are fatally flawed and do not adhere to major aspects of the rule of law.' . . .

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