About that Ghailani verdict…

ABOUT THAT GHAILANI VERDICT…. Ahmed Ghailani, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, was convicted yesterday in a federal criminal court on terrorist conspiracy charges. That, however, is a small part of a much larger story.

Ghailani was actually facing 284 other counts of terrorism-related charges, but a civilian jury acquitted him on all of those other charges. The defendant could be sentenced to life in prison for the conviction, but Ghailani being cleared of 284 out of 285 charges is likely to have a considerable political impact.

Specifically, the Obama administration has argued, accurately, that trying Guantanamo detainees in U.S. civilian courts is the appropriate course. Conservatives, and some scared Democrats, have said convictions are more difficult in American courts, and prefer military commissions.

And given yesterday’s outcome, the right is back to having a field day.

“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, said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York. “We must treat them as wartime enemies and try them in military commissions at Guantánamo.” […]

Several other soon-to-be-powerful Republican lawmakers — including Lamar Smith of Texas, in the incoming Judiciary Committee chairman — made similar statements denouncing the use of civilian courts to prosecute terrorism cases.

Now, the obvious response is to note that Republicans’ case is unpersuasive. Not only was Ghailani convicted of a charge that will likely lead to life behind bars, but the track record with military commissions is pretty awful. As Colin Powell noted earlier this year, “In eight years the military commissions have put three people on trial. Two of them served relatively short sentences and are free. One guy is in jail. Meanwhile, the federal courts — our Article III, regular legal court system — has put dozens of terrorists in jail and they’re fully capable of doing it.”

But we can go even further here. Note, for example, what a senior administration official told ABC’s Jake Tapper.

“He was convicted by a jury of a count which carries a 20-year minimum sentence,” the official says. “He will very likely be sentenced to something closer to life. (The judge can, and very likely will, take into account things that the jury did not, and he can and will consider conduct that the jury found him not guilty of — e.g., murder). He will never be paroled (there is no parole in the federal system). There are very few federal crimes that carry a mandatory MINIMUM of 20 years. What that means is that he was convicted of a crime that is a very big deal.”

“So, we tried a guy (who the Bush Admin tortured and then held at GTMO for 4-plus years with no end game whatsoever) in a federal court before a NY jury with full transparency and international legitimacy and — despite all of the legacy problems of the case (i.e., evidence getting thrown out because of Bush-Admin torture, etc,) we were STILL able to convict him and INCAPACITATE him for essentially the rest of his natural life, AND there was not one — not one — security problem associated with the trial.”

“Would it have been better optically if he had been convicted of more counts? Sure. Would it have made any practical difference? No.”

You can expect Republicans to take the offensive on this today. You can also expect their arguments to be entirely wrong.