Civilian courts are no place to try terrorists

Even after conviction, the issue is not whether a maximum-security prison can hold these defendants; of course it can. But their presence even inside the walls, as proselytizers if nothing else, is itself a danger. The recent arrest of U.S. citizen Michael Finton, a convert to Islam proselytized in prison and charged with planning to blow up a building in Springfield, Ill., is only the latest example of that problem.

Moreover, the rules for conducting criminal trials in federal courts have been fashioned to prosecute conventional crimes by conventional criminals. Defendants are granted access to information relating to their case that might be useful in meeting the charges and shaping a defense, without regard to the wider impact such information might have. That can provide a cornucopia of valuable information to terrorists, both those in custody and those at large.

Thus, in the multidefendant terrorism prosecution of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and others that I presided over in 1995 in federal district court in Manhattan, the government was required to disclose, as it is routinely in conspiracy cases, the identity of all known co-conspirators, regardless of whether they are charged as defendants. One of those co-conspirators, relatively obscure in 1995, was Osama bin Laden. It was later learned that soon after the government’s disclosure the list of unindicted co-conspirators had made its way to bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, where he then resided. He was able to learn not only that the government was aware of him, but also who else the government was aware of.

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