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Why Is the Obama Administration Subverting the Rule of Law?

If, in fact, we are a "nation of laws," you wouldn't know it from Washington's actions over the past few years.

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Another highly publicized case where punishment preceded trial has been the mistreatment of  Army Private Bradley Manning  while in military custody in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, awaiting charges.  The Obama administration believes he turned over a trove of secret military and State Department documents to the website WikiLeaks.  Following his arrest, Manning was kept in subhuman conditions.  He was  forced to sleep naked  and to strip for daily inspections , though as news about his situation generated bad publicity, he was eventually allowed to sleep in a “tear-proof” gown.

There is something deeply disturbing about the very different ways Manning and Drake were pre-punished by the government -- both directly in the case of Manning and indirectly in the case of Drake -- before being given due process of any kind.  Like bin Laden’s killing, both cases reflect an unspoken worry in Washington that our courts will prove insufficiently ruthless and so incapable of giving the “obviously guilty” what they “obviously” deserve.

The Courts Take Notice

As it turns out, the judicial system hasn’t taken the government’s new attitude lying down.  Various judges and juries have, in fact, shown themselves to be unfazed by both public and governmental pressures and have, in terror and national security cases, demonstrated signs of balance and of a concern for justice, rather than being driven by a blind sense of revenge.

In the past year, there has been an unprecedented number of high-profile terrorism trials. All have resulted in convictions, which have nonetheless not reflected the unstinting harshness that critics of court-centered counterterrorism insist upon.  In the case of Ahmed Ghailani, the sole Guantanamo detainee to face trial in the nation’s criminal justice system, the jury, having done its work of assessing the evidence, acquitted the defendant on 284 of 285 counts, including all the murder charges associated with the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  On the single count on which he was convicted, however, Ghailani was given a life sentence without parole.

Meanwhile, a high-profile terrorism case -- that of Tagawwur Rana --  ended in a jury acquittal on its most serious charge.  Rana had been accused of cooperating in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, which resulted in the deaths of more than 160 individuals. The jury found Rana guilty of material support, but not of helping to coordinate the attack.

These cases and others like them have, of course, been fodder for all the usual critics who consider anything but a 100% conviction rate on all charges in all cases to be a sure sign not of the justice system’s strength, but of its fundamental weakness.  And yet, such cases have showcased just how effectively the system still works, in a more nuanced way than in the previous near-decade, as well as in a subtler and more just way than Washington has managed to approximate over that same period.  Despite the fears, pressures, and scare tactics that are entangled with all such terror cases, we now have living proof that juries can think for themselves, and guilt can be a partial matter, rather than a Washington slam-dunk.

Of late, federal judges on such cases also seem to have been signaling to the government’s representatives that they must be more restrained in their approach to national security cases, both in and out of court. In late June, for instance, during the sentencing of three of the men convicted of conspiring to bomb two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, and to launch a Stinger missile aimed at aircraft over Newburgh’s Air National Guard Base, Judge Colleen McMahon struck back at the government’s case.  “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt,” she said, “that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it, and brought it to fruition.  That does not mean that there was no crime. The jury concluded that you were not entrapped, and I see no basis to overturn their verdict.”

 
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