Ignorance is the real victor in the president’s reluctant decision to abandon the effort to bring the alleged perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack to account in civilian court. The significance of a fair and public trial would be to reveal to the world the motives and makeup of those we must defeat, and yet the very people in this country who claim to be the most militant in combating terrorism have been the most energetic and effective in stifling that inquiry.
It must be said that Barack Obama deserves credit for attempting to show the world that truth will triumph and justice will prevail when even the most dastardly offenders are given their day in court. But faced with a shrill Republican-led opposition in Congress that succeeded in banning the trials on U.S. soil, the president reluctantly reversed the decision he had made upon taking office to halt military commission trials of those detained at Guantanamo. The announcement Monday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates rescinding the ban on the military trials also called for the indefinite imprisonment of those Guantanamo inmates thought to be too dangerous to be released but against whom the government doesn’t have enough evidence to obtain convictions. The shortcomings of the military commission trials was denounced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who said such proceedings fall “far short of core constitutional values by failing to provide judicial review of cases considered by the review board’ and to guarantee “meaningful assistance of counsel” to those accused.
But it is not the rights of the accused, important as they are, that should be the main concern here. Rather it is the right — indeed, need — of the American public to learn the truth about the motives, financing and methods of those who are alleged to have torn at the heart of our social fabric. What led 15 solid citizens of our ally Saudi Arabia to hijack those planes under direction of their Western-educated leaders is still murky. How did our allies in the war against Soviet communism in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, come to mastermind that savage attack on America? It is startling that, almost a decade after the attack, we still must rely for our understanding of what happened on a narrative informed not by the full disclosure revealed by the evaluation of a vetted record and robust cross-examination in open court of the key witnesses but rather by the unexamined and unquestioned reckoning of the facts supplied by the government officials who interrogated and indeed tortured the prisoners, most significantly Mohammed.
What the public has been led to believe about the events of 9/11 is most fully encapsulated in the report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, appointed by President George W. Bush. But the Bush administration denied the commission access to the prisoners whose testimony, elicited after torture, provided the basic narrative as to how Sept. 11, 2001, came to be. That fatal flaw in the investigation was clearly conceded in a box on Page 146 of the official 9/11 Commission report containing a disclaimer that the key chapters “rely heavily on information from captured al Qaeda members” and admitting that the commission was dependent on hearsay reports from the interrogators as to what those witnesses actually said.
“We submitted questions for use in the interrogations but had no control over whether, when, or how questions of particular interest would be asked. Nor were we allowed to talk to the interrogators so that we could better judge the credibility of the detainees and clarify ambiguities in the reporting. We were told that our requests might disrupt the sensitive interrogation process.”
Much of that story was derived from the waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was slated to be tried in Manhattan in civilian court until Congress derailed that possibility. As a result, the mystery of what led him from a small North Carolina Baptist college to fight alongside the United States in Afghanistan and then turn against this country may never be known — along with who financed and directed his journey and that of the hijackers he is said to have guided. For a decade, we have been obsessed with a terrorist enemy that we still barely comprehend – ignorance is not bliss.