No Comment — November 4, 2011, 10:36 am

Innocence Is No Defense

The Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg reports:

The U.S. military tribunal for the USS Cole bombing suspect has no power to free a captive found innocent of war crimes but shouldn’t be told the terror suspect could be held for life anyway, Pentagon prosecutors said in a court document made public Wednesday.

Defense lawyers want the judge presiding at the death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri to notify would-be jurors that acquittal of war crimes won’t necessarily mean the Saudi-born captive walks free from the U.S. prison camps at Guantánamo.

In their motion, al-Nashiri’s lawyers had pressed the prosecution for a clear statement on what would happen in the event of an acquittal, arguing that prosecutors not be permitted to suggest to the jury that the defendant will go free. They quoted from an article written by Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court justice then on special leave to handle the prosecutions at Nuremberg: “The ultimate principle is that you must put no man on trial under the forms [of] judicial proceedings if you are not willing to see him freed if not proven guilty.”

The prosecutors responded with a brief acknowledging that al-Nashiri would not be released if acquitted. Still, they insisted that the military jury has no right to know this, writing “The legality of the accused’s law-of-war detention is a matter beyond the scope of commission proceedings.”

At one level, this exchange covers fairly technical legal matters related to the jurisdiction of military commissions and the difference between criminal charges and ones under the laws of armed conflict. But at its core, the defense motion is a clever effort to expose the political underpinnings of the entire military-commission system. Republicans have long argued that terrorism cases should be sent to this system because the result there is more certain. These arguments do a disservice to the uniformed professionals who staff the cases, as well as to the military juries, who, Republicans imply, can be counted upon to produce the outcome politicians want.

In The Black Banners, former FBI agent Ali Soufan — the man who more than any other pieced together the plot against the Cole and built the case against al-Nashiri, describes the long, sometimes frustrating road that investigators traveled. Many of their troubles were caused by political actors: an ambassador concerned that investigators were disturbing relations with Yemen; a White House administration (George W. Bush’s) less concerned about the matter than its predecessor, and happy to see it recede from public view.

Since the fall of 2001, the already-too-routine politicization of the criminal-justice system has accelerated. Politicians take the public stage, identify specific persons as culprits, and talk aggressively about how and where suspects should be charged. Congress entertains proposals that would restrict the options afforded to prosecutors in deciding what charges to bring and where. These political efforts have plainly been targeted at eliminating the prospect of acquittal. This may be smart domestic politics, but it treats our criminal justice system as a doormat.

The case against al-Nashiri does not strike me as marginal or doubtful. The evidence the prosecution has amassed is impressive, as it needs to be in a capital case. On the other hand, the defendant was waterboarded and threatened with a power drill, and had his mother threatened with sexual assault. This gross misconduct tainted the evidence it produced, greatly complicating the prosecutor’s task.

Abd Rahim al-Nashiri’s case is not the only one at Guantánamo, but it marks an important test on many counts. His trial is being watched closely by a world eager to see what justice means to America today. The defense team has demonstrated that it is fully aware of this fact and intends to benefit from it as much as possible. That is their right. It is important, regardless, that the prosecution and judge proceed in a manner that reinforces their own commitment to justice, and their indifference to the political winds blowing in from outside the courtroom, particularly from the Washington beltway.

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Seeking Asylum·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today