President Obama, March 1st (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Aamer Madhani and Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON-The Obama administration vigorously defended its decision on Friday to try Osama bin Laden's son-in-law on American soil.
Hours after Sulaiman Abu Ghayth appeared briefly in a New York federal courtroom to plead not guilty to a charge of conspiring to kill Americans, the White House said that there was broad consensus from Pentagon, intelligence, Homeland Security and Justice department officials that U.S. national security interests were best served by trying Ghayth in the United States.
"Article 3 courts have shown in many ways are a more efficient way to deliver justice those who seek to harm the United States of America," White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. "It is the consensus view of the President's national security team and agencies across the federal government to bring Abu Ghayth to justice."
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP lawmakers are arguing that Ghayth, an al-Qaeda propagandist, is an enemy combatant and belongs at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay. While President Obama has not followed through with a pledge to close Guantanamo, he has shown a preference for trying terror suspects in U.S. courts when possible.
"The decision of the president to import Sulaiman Abu Ghayth into the United States solely for civilian prosecution makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay despite the circumstances," McConnell said in a statement on Friday. "At Guantanamo, he could be held as a detainee and fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers."
The White House dismissed McConnell's assessment as poorly informed.
"With all due respect to Senator McConnell, that's not the assessment of the intelligence community," Earnest said. "He's certainly welcome to his opinion, but that's not the assessment of the people responsible for protecting the national security of the United States."
Terror analysts said Ghayth was not believed to be involved in attack planning or other operational roles.
"Ghayth was not a mastermind,'' said analyst Evan Kohlmann. "He had clerical credentials and was a very forceful speaker. He was good at promoting al-Qaeda's position.''
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, said Ghayth was "not a field marshal.'' But Hoffman said the suspect could provide potentially valuable information about the terror group's relationship with Iran, where Ghayth and other al-Qaeda members fled following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
But Ghayth's relationship to bin Laden and the fact that he appeared beside the former a-Qaeda leader and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri in propaganda videos will make Ghayth one of the highest-profile members of al-Qaeda to be prosecuted in a U.S. court
In 2010, the Obama administration announced plans to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men charged with plotting the Sept. 11 attacks in the same courthouse where Ghayth appeared on Friday. The administration abandoned that plan in 2011 out of concerns about costs and potential disruption.