Al-Marri cops a plea

The saga of Ali al-Marri came to an abrupt end yesterday with a plea deal brokered by the Department of Justice.  Al-Marri pled guilty to charges related to terrorist activity and admitted to membership in al-Qaeda.  In exchange, the terrorist will get no more than 15 years in prison:

During the nearly six years that Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri spent in isolation in a Navy brig as the last enemy combatant held on United States soil, he denied the government’s charges that he was a sleeper agent for Al Qaeda, his lawyers said. But on Thursday, in a federal courtroom in Peoria, Ill., that denial fell apart when Mr. Marri reached a deal with the government to plead guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda.

In the 20-page plea agreement — which substantially reduced the possible prison sentence against him — Mr. Marri admitted having attended terrorist training camps from 1998 to 2001 and taking courses in the “use of various weapons and basic operational security tradecraft.”

He admitted meeting with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was at the time the external operations chief for the Qaeda organization, and “offered his services.” Mr. Mohammed, according to the agreement, told Mr. Marri “to enter the United States no later than Sept. 10, 2001” and await further instructions. …

Mr. Marri was initially indicted this year on two counts related to providing material support and resources to a terrorist organization, each of which carries a maximum 15-year sentence; the plea to a single count means that his sentence could be cut in half, after which he could be deported to Qatar.

Two months ago, the Obama administration avoided a challenge on constitutional grounds with al-Marri by charging him under the criminal code rather than continuing his military detention.  The Supreme Court declined to act on al-Marri’s behalf after the change.  Eric Holder acted yesterday to avoid another constitutional challenge on appeal after a likely conviction at trial because of the actions of the Bush administration with al-Marri.

Unlike most of the other terrorist detainees held by the Bush administration, al-Marri was arrested on American soil after entering the US legally.  Under those circumstances, al-Marri should have been processed under the same legal processes as any other American resident.  Instead, the Bush administration claimed the ability to place anyone designated as a terrorist enemy of the US during a time of war under military detention, even if arrested in the US while living here legally.  That sets a dangerous precedent, one that the Obama administration has avoided defending or even debating in this series of moves.

If the courts had a chance to rule on this case on appeal, they would have almost certainly freed al-Marri for the overreach by the Bush administration.  This is the same court, after all, that threw out military tribunals and granted habeas corpus to people detained outside the Unites States.  Holder must have figured that 15 years, perhaps somewhat reduced for time served, was better than no time at all.  This was the right call, and hopefully a lesson on overreach — and a lesson on checking on visa applicants in the future.

Update: Commenters wonder why al-Marri didn’t get the same treatment that Nazi saboteurs got during WWII.  For one thing, the Nazis snuck into the country, while al-Marri came on a visa and was a legal resident of the US.  The Constitution applies to the latter, not the former.