Three-quarters of National Journal's National Security Insiders overwhelmingly supported the Obama administration's decision to bring al-Qaida operative Anas al-Libi to New York federal court for trial after the suspect was captured from Tripoli, Libya.
Libi last week pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges. "His kidnapping from a friendly country was kinda dubious, to put it mildly," one Insider said, "but better to bring him to a federal court than to a military court, or one of our new secret courts."
An open trial in which Libi has legal counsel will "shine public light on vicious terrorist activity," another Insider said, and "help families of victims achieve closure, and increase the international legitimacy of whatever punishment he receives."
Many Insiders hoped the move would cement the transition away from the use of Guantanamo Bay prison, which President Obama has pledged to try to close. "Hopefully it's a move away from torture, Gitmo, and black prison sites and a move back to the rule of law," one Insider said. Gitmo, another Insider added, "is a blight on our international political image. We keep tens of thousands of dangerous criminals in our jails. We can handle al-Qaida."
Because Libi's court case—with charges linking him to bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998—predates 9/11, one Insider said, "It will be a useful experiment in balancing the two response options for terrorist attacks, one of law enforcement or one of military action. We need to do better at integrating the two approaches, and this case is a good one to try to do that."
Yet 24.5 percent of Insiders opposed the move. Al-Libi should be treated "as the enemy combatant he is, not like a bank robber," another Insider said. "After a much more extensive interrogation than he was given, Libi should be sent to Guantanamo with the rest of his kind, to face a military tribunal in a revamped system set up to specifically accommodate trials of captured terrorists." Other Insiders agreed that Libi, the subject of a rendition, should have been interrogated more extensively before U.S. criminal-law protections kicked in.
Terrorists are not ordinary criminals and should not be dealt with as such, another Insider added. A federal trial "sends a message that with clever lawyers, they can go free to wreak more mayhem another day."
Separately, the Obama administration's recent decision to suspend some aid to Cairo—including high-profile items such as tanks and fighter jets—will prove ineffective in achieving Washington's goal of influencing the Egyptian military to transition to democracy and reduce violence in the country, virtually all of the Insiders said.
"The Obama administration's suspension of military aid came at an awkward time and only serves to undercut and anger the Egyptian military," one Insider said. "The administration used a 'cookie-cutter' approach to a foreign policy decision when a more nuanced approach would have been much more effective."
Obama has gotten "everything wrong in Egypt," beginning with the Cairo speech, another Insider said. "There is no reason to stop that streak now. It's the wrong policy, and if he feels so strongly, why did he wait? One more confusing signal from a foreign policy without a rudder." The Egyptian military ousted democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, this summer, and violence has continued since; the crackdown on civil-society groups within the country began years ago. "In both Egypt and Syria, delay has had exactly the same effect—to narrow American options and influence," another Insider said. "Obama stayed on the sidelines by choice—now he has no choice."
Washington, one Insider said, "overestimates" the impact on other countries behavior of its "largesse." Aid as a means of leverage has not worked in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the Insider argued. Several Insiders said the move will be counterproductive—"worse" than simply being ineffective. "The Egyptians will look to China. Is that what we really want?" one Insider said.
Yet some Insiders who believed the move would not actually influence Cairo's behavior said the decision was correct to suspend aid. "It probably won't cause the Egyptians to democratize, but we should suspend the aid anyway," one Insider said. "The argument that aid gives us influence is undermined by continuing aid to a regime that ignores our policy preferences—all this does is to show others that you can do what you want and the Americans will still pay you anyway. That's not influence."
1. The Obama administration's decision to bring al-Qaida operative Anas al-Libi to New York federal court for trial was the:
- Right decision 75.5%
- Wrong decision 24.5%
"Fair trials necessary, even for terrorists."
"The blended use of national security tools in the al-Libi case should be the model for how the U.S. conducts counterterrorism operations in the future."
"The man is under federal indictment and should be brought to trial in a federal court."
"This one is probably justified to take through the courts."
"[Gitmo] for many reasons is not working. We need to have consequences associated with action, and these people to be accountable. Same process was used for pirates and worked."
"He is accused of committing a federal crime. Article III courts have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to try people accused of such crimes, including terrorist crimes."
"Terrorists are criminals who instead of being motivated by profit and greed are driven by ideology and hate. Our justice system is well acquainted with criminal terrorists and will investigate, send to trial, and convict those who do harm against us and our interests. Once in a Supermax, they can continue to be interviewed to gain information about their terror networks. [Gitmo] has been and continues to be an expensive failure."
"This provides the administration with a solid case study for trying terrorists in federal courts."
"Well executed rendition in Libya and the time aboard ship was a good idea; hoping they gave the team enough time; more concerned over the lack of 'finish' in Somalia."
"The position the Obama administration has taken in the past in similar cases—that it will afford criminal trials to these kinds of terrorists, but has no intention of releasing them if they are acquitted by a jury—shows what a travesty this exercise is."
"Anas al-Libi should be treated as the enemy combatant he is, not like a bank robber. After a much more extensive interrogation than he was given, Libi should be sent to Guantanamo with the rest of his kind, to face a military tribunal in a revamped system set up to specifically accommodate trials of captured terrorists."
"He is a significant intelligence resource and should be interrogated by [Joint Special Operations Command] and the CIA without a lawyer."
"Wrong but consistent with the administration's view that counterterror efforts ought to be based on law enforcement. Libi will be grateful for Miranda, but the nation's safety will pay the price."
2. The Obama administration's decision to suspend some military aid will prove ___ in influencing the Egyptian military to transition to democracy and reduce violence in the country:
- Ineffective 86%
- Effective 14%
"Our ability to shape events in Egypt is quite limited."
"The administration appears determined to antagonize all sides in Egypt. The Camp David assistance the U.S. has given Egypt for more than three decades is a reward for maintaining peace with Israel, not a bribe conditioned on democratic behavior."
"Effective or ineffective, it's the law, and the suspension should have been applied completely from the beginning."
"It probably won't cause the Egyptians to democratize, but we should suspend the aid anyway. The argument that aid gives us influence is undermined by continuing aid to a regime that ignores our policy preferences--all this does is to show others that you can do what you want and the Americans will still pay you anyway. That's not influence."
"The suspension of some U.S. military aid will not have immediate effect on the military regime, but will encourage opponents to see an opportunity to gain more international support if they pursue democratic change."
"The aid suspension is driven by domestic political reasons and has little chance of helping move Egypt in a more positive direction."
"This move doesn't get the administration much--they have lost leverage; should have done this sooner, if they wanted to cut off aid."
"The suspension will also hurt our ability to influence the Egyptian leadership."
"But it was still the right thing to do, as a statement of the U.S. position."
"Public embarassment is rarely a high probability shot."
"While I think it is too early to see, I fear that giving rational thought to a currently irrational situation may not forecast the actual results regarding what the future holds."
"The Egyptian military will take this action as a betrayal while we are still paying Israel."
"The Egyptian military has set its own course and will not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to regain power. What the United States does or doesn't do in response will not alter this reality."
"It will hurt their crony military industrial complex but not enough to bend them to our well. Sanctions don't work and this is just another sanction."
"The Saudi and other Middle Eastern dictatorships will make up the difference. It is simply a 'feel good' political gesture from an administration desperately trying to be a 'player' in Egypt."
"Ineffective but correct. We should have cut off the aid a long time ago, but inertia is a powerful force in U.S. foreign policy. Also, U.S. law ought to be followed where possible, and it's possible here."
"Hopefully managed carefully below the surface, but real risk of eroding influence with the last institution of stature and inviting chaos to fill the void."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of more than 100 defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mark Green, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, John Hamre, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Linda Hudson, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Larry Prior, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Frank Ruggiero, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Richard Wilhelm, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
This article appears in the October 22, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.