For terrorism trials, civilian courts are up to the job


We haven’t heard much lately from the folks who say the Obama administration is making America vulnerable by trying terrorists in federal criminal courts instead of in military commissions.

It’s probably because their rhetoric has been dealt a serious blow by the flurry of guilty pleas this year by high-profile terror suspects. They include:

• Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty in June to attempting to blow up a bomb-laden SUV in Times Square in a plot supported by the Pakistani Taliban.

• David Headley, who admitted in March to helping plan the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai and to plotting to bomb a Danish newspaper.

• And Najibullah Zazi, who admitted in February to a suicide bomb plot aimed at New York’s subways and supported by Al Qaeda.

All three pleaded guilty in federal courts, and all three now face maximum terms of life in federal prison — where there is no possibility of parole. All three are also cooperating with authorities.

In another case, this month, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment charging five men in an Al Qaeda plot to attack targets in Britain and the United States, including the New York City subway system. It is believed the indictment was crafted, at least in part, with information supplied by Zazi and a co-defendant.

So much for the claim that our federal courts aren’t up to the job.

These cases are not anomalies. They are the latest in a long line of successful terror indictments and prosecutions that underscore our federal criminal justice system’s unparalleled ability to elicit intelligence, charge and prosecute terrorists and deliver substantial prison sentences.

Swift guilty pleas and cooperation are hardly the stuff of a weak justice system. And it’s important to note that cooperation happens often in federal criminal prosecutions, but not in military commissions. Terrorist conviction statistics, provided by the Justice Department’s National Security Division, are impressive:

• By mid-March of this year, 403 terrorism suspects had been tried and convicted in federal district courts since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

• Of these, 159 were convicted of Category I crimes — violations of federal statutes directly related to international terrorism.

• The other 244 were convicted of Category II crimes — violations of fraud, immigration, firearms, drugs and other statutes in cases with identified links to international terrorism.

A dozen of these convicted terrorists were sentenced to life in prison. One was sentenced to 155 years, and 18 others received sentences of 20 years or more.

The average sentence handed down to defendants charged with terrorism, between 2001 and 2009, is 19.7 years, according to the Center on Law and Security at New York University’s School of Law.

And the most dangerous have been jailed in the highest-security facilities operated by the Bureau of Prisons. This includes roughly three dozen terrorists, many with ties to Al Qaeda, incarcerated at the “Supermax” prison near Florence, Colo.

How have military commissions done by comparison?

Since 9/11, only four Guantanamo detainees have been prosecuted in military commissions. Two of them received light sentences and are now free.

That’s not to say that there may be instances in which a military commission might be a superior venue, such as cases involving attacks aimed at U.S. military facilities.

But results matter. And the lopsided statistics clearly show that military commissions should be the exception, not the rule.

In any event, the decision of the best venue in which to prosecute a terror suspect should be the president’s to make, and the call should be made based on facts, not political rhetoric.

Our federal courts have an unmatched record of putting terror suspects on trial, collecting intelligence when possible — and sending them away for good.

Dianne Feinstein is a Democratic U.S. senator from California.