The 911 Attack vs the USS Cole Bombing

By Kamika Dunlap on November 13, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Who gets a civilian versus a military trial and why?

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other alleged plotters of the 911 attack will be tried as terrorists and criminals in a federal court, the US Attorney General announced today.

Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who along with four other detainees is accused of planning the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen, will go before a military commission.

In addition to wondering what evidence in any of these cases will have to be tossed out due to having been obtained through "enhanced interrogation tactics" that violated international torture laws, many are wondering why some alleged terrorists will be tried in federal court, while others will get a military tribunal.

Interrogation tactics will come into play in both the civilian and the military trials.

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who allegedly confessed to masterminding of the attacks, was waterboarded 183 times while at Guantanamo Bay. Which pieces of evidence the court will allow may well depend on what was gained from him outside the use of "enhanced interrogation tactics."

Evidence and information gathered during his harsh interrogation and waterboarding will likely be barred from his trial.

In a speech this morning, Attorney General Holder stated that the all of these people could be tried in civilian or military court. He said that the factors used to decide which would go where included "the nature of the offense, the location in which the offense occurred, the identity of the victims, and the manner in which the case was investigated."

The 911 attack cases, involving an attack in the US on civilian targets, points toward civilian criminal trial. The USS Cole bombing, which killed US service members in Yemen, points towards military tribunal.

However, inclusion of "the manner in which each case was investigated" as a factor will be cited by those who argue that military tribunals are chosen when the government fears a civilian court would either throw out more evidence or would expose information that military tribunals may keep hidden.

The American Prospect Blog looks more closely at the way military commissions, although similar to civilian trials, still allow the government to more easily suppress information it wants to keep secret. It goes on to say that could have been the reason to try Al-Nashiri in military court.

Human rights and civil liberties advocates argue the decision boils down to one thing -- giving different detainees different kinds of trials, based on where government officials think they can win convictions, which they argue is unfair.

Sorting out justice for the 911 attack and the Cole bombing is no easy matter, and will feature many more twists and turns as the cases proceed.

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