Binalshibh May Be Tried Before Military Tribunal
W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 17 — Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the biggest prizes in the U.S.-led war on terror, could be the first alleged terrorist tried before a military tribunal, after interrogators try to learn all they can from the alleged al Qaeda lieutenant.
Officials said the decision on how to try Binalshibh, one of the most important captures since the Sept. 11 attacks, ultimately rests with President Bush.
Senior government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the first priority is determining how much information the United States can learn from Binalshibh about planned attacks and the operations of Osama bin Laden's network.
"The primary and first goal is to get valuable intelligence from him and prevent further attacks," a senior intelligence official said.
Any information extracted from Binalshibh could be used against other terror defendants, and could also be used against Binalshibh himself if he is tried before a military tribunal, lawyers said.
That information would probably be excluded from a traditional criminal trial, lawyers said. Similarly, a television news tape in which a man identified as Binalshibh freely boasts of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks would probably be admissible at a tribunal.
"This is not a guy a lot of people are going to sit back and worry they got an innocent man," said Robert Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.
Legal experts said Binalshibh fits the administration's criteria for use of military tribunals: He is not a U.S. citizen, he was captured abroad, and he is allegedly a member of al Qaeda.
"He certainly fits the bill," said Neal Sonnett, a Miami criminal defense lawyer who was an early critic of administration plans to strip traditional legal protections from defendants tried before tribunals.
"If they are going to utilize military commissions to try any of these folks, based on what we've heard about him he seems to be a likely candidate."
So far, there is no indication that any alleged terrorist has been tried by a military tribunal, whose proceedings can be kept much more secret than ordinary courts. Some lawyers said the administration may be waiting for a big enough fish.
Though not a member of Osama bin Laden's top leadership, Binalshibh is believed to have been a long-serving and determined al Qaeda operative. He allegedly had a role in the USS Cole bombing and last year's terror attacks, and was a member of the al Qaeda cell in Hamburg, Germany, which U.S. and German investigators believe planned and carried out the jetliner attacks.
Binalshibh may have intended to be the 20th suicide hijacker, but he failed repeatedly to enter the United States. He was captured in Pakistan last week and is now in U.S. custody.
His history heightens the public relations value of making Binalshibh the first alleged terrorist tried before a tribunal, said Scott L. Silliman, director of Duke University's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security.
"The administration needs to come out with a military commission to justify the political capital it invested with Congress and the public," said Silliman, who also was critical of plans for tribunals when they were announced last fall.