Last Thursday, a Manhattan federal appeals panel ruled that the five-year detention of a convicted terrorist was not an unconstitutional delay in his right to a speedy trial. Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was captured in 2004 by Pakistani forces, under indictment for complicity in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. Before his trial and ultimate conviction in 2010, Ghailani was detained at Guantánamo Bay for five years, where he was subjected to what the Bush administration insisted were enhanced interrogation techniques. The criminal prosecution’s case against Ghailani was substantial and proved his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. This does not negate the readily apparent fact that Ghailani was denied his right to a speedy trial, which should have been seriously addressed in the panel’s opinion.
Last week’s decision was justified by appealing to national security interests. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan wrote that Ghailani’s detention was necessary in obtaining “valuable information essential to combating al-Qaeda.” Kaplan insisted the information would not have been obtained “if [the government] had prosecuted him in federal courts.” However, this claim is at best questionable.
As I have argued in a previous piece, federal courts are a capable and preferable venue for processing terror suspects. Additionally, the use of torture in military detention centers is counterproductive. A 2006 report within the intelligence community asserted torture “can actually increase a source’s resistance and determination not to comply” and “degrade [the suspect’s] ability to report the intelligence information they possess in a valid, comprehensive fashion.” However, one might insist the Miranda requirement significantly impedes investigators, as it affords suspects the right to remain silent. This is nonsense. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed exceptions to the Miranda requirement in cases concerning public safety. Terror suspects would therefore be justly stripped of any legal right to resist interrogation.
That critical information can be acquired through federal courts necessitates that the five-year detainment at Guantánamo was unreasonable. But if the court ruled in the claimant’s favor and affirmed that he was denied a fundamental right, the panel would have been confronted with an arguably more severe problem. The Speedy Trial Act of 1974 necessitates that a recognition of Ghailani’s deprived right would mean all charges against him would have to be dropped. With this in mind, the panel’s decision to deny Ghailani the right to a speedy trial is grounded in legal technicalities. The court has constructed a faulty justification to avoid Ghailani’s acquittal.
The method employed by the Bush administration in the detainment of Ghailani has impaired the function of the federal court. This is an impairment that would have been avoided had Ghailani enjoyed the right to a speedy trial years before he first appeared before a judge.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 29 print edition. Peter Keffer is a deputy opinion editor. Email him at [email protected]