Is civilian or military justice best for Osama bin Laden's son-in-law?

Story highlights

  • "We're able to do both," Obama spokesman says of prosecution, intelligence
  • Sulaiman Abu Ghaith should face military prosecution, several Republicans say
  • He should be interrogated at Guantanamo for intelligence on al Qaeda, they say
  • But the Justice Department says federal court protects national security
The decision to give Osama bin Laden's son-in-law civilian, not military, treatment has reignited passionate differences of opinion on which type of justice is appropriate for someone who wages war on the United States.
Several Republicans insist that Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the bin Laden relative who was also al Qaeda's chief spokesman, should be sent to the detention compound in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Abu Ghaith pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court to charges of conspiring to kill Americans as part of terrorism.
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," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the administration's decision.
President Barack Obama has pledged to close the Guantanamo facility, controversial for alleged human rights violations, including interrogation techniques that a 2006 U.N. report said "amounted to torture."
"At Guantanamo, he could be held as a detainee and fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers," McConnell said. "Abu Ghaith has sworn to kill Americans, and he likely possesses information that could prevent harm to America and its allies."
Federal prosecutors said Abu Ghaith gave investigators a 22-page statement after his arrest, but they didn't reveal any of what the terror suspect said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, also said that Abu Ghaith should have been sent to Guantanamo.
"If you are that close to bin Laden," he said, "we want to develop all the information that person has."
"I think we (are) setting a new precedent that will come back to bite us," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, told reporters. "It's clear to me they snuck him in ... under the nose of Congress."
The U.S. Justice Department says it examined the nature of Abu Ghaith's alleged offenses and whether charges would better be served in federal court or through a military commission.
"In this case, the president's national security team examined this matter and unanimously agreed that prosecution of Ghaith in federal court will best protect the national security interests of the United States," department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a written statement.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration can bring Abu Ghaith to justice while obtaining intelligence from him.
"We're able to do both," Earnest said.
From at least May 2001 to 2002, Abu Ghaith appeared with Osama bin Laden and his then-deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and warned that attacks similar to 9/11 would continue, Earnest said.
"So, this is somebody who is going to be held accountable for his crimes," Earnest said.
Evidence in the court case has been sealed, and prosecutors said they were reviewing classified evidence to see if it would be used in Abu Ghaith's trial.
Abu Ghaith's 22-page statement could be admitted in federal court if he was given a Miranda warning, but military tribunals could allow the statement even if the warning wasn't given, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said.
"So that's a clear difference" between the two systems, Toobin said.
Information obtained by torture, however, isn't admissible in a Guantanamo military tribunal, Toobin added.
"The government has said they will not attempt, even against major (terror) figures like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to use information that was obtained through water boarding," Toobin said.
CNN security analyst Peter Bergen said Abu Ghaith appears not to have been involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Rather, he emerged as an al Qaeda figure after the attacks, Bergen said.
"He's really been a sort of bit player -- not to say that it isn't important that he goes on trial," he said.
Military legal expert Eugene Fiddell said the conspiracy charge against Abu Ghaith is not a war crime and is outside the jurisdiction of a military commission.
The U.S. Treasury Department has described Abu Ghaith as "the official spokesman of al Qaeda since his appointment to that position after the attacks of September 11, 2001."
He has appeared in videos as "the mouthpiece of bin Laden," the department said.
In January, the State Department reassigned the special envoy dealing with the closing of the Guantanamo detention facility and has no plans to replace him, leaving the administration's timetable for closing the facility in question.