White House Refusal to Answer Question on Terrorist Prompts Senate Skirmish

Jun 10, 2009 7:16pm

Yesterday, despite repeated questioning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs refused to answer whether the Obama administration will free Ahmed Ghailani if he's found not guilty in court. The Obama administration flew the accused terrorist from Guantanamo to New York yesterday to try him for his alleged role in the 1998 embassy bombings.

“I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about how certain cases may or may not play out,” Gibbs said.

The question is important on several levels. If he will be freed, that prompts questions of national security and whether civilian courts are as appropriate as other venues for such trials. If he won't be freed despite being found not guilty that undermines the credibility of the trial.

Today Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, asked, “if we’re going to treat this terrorist detainee as a common civilian criminal, what will happen to Ghailani if he’s found not guilty? And what will happen to other detainees the administration wants to try in civilian courts if they are found not guilty? Will they be released? If so, where? In New York? In American communities? Or will they be released overseas, where they could return to terror and target American soldiers or innocent civilians?”

McConnell continued: “If Ghailani isn’t allowed to go free, will he be detained by the government? If so, where will he be detained? Would the administration detain him on U.S. soil, despite the objections of Congress and the American people?”

McConnell said the questions about Ghailani resemble the questions about Guantanamo in general.

“On the question of Guantanamo, it became increasingly clear over time that the administration announced its plan to close the facility before it actually had a plan,” he said. “If the administration has a plan for holding Ghailani if he’s found not guilty, then it needs to share that plan with the Congress. These kinds of questions are not insignificant. They involve the safety of the American people.”

This all prompted the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to say he wanted “to ask the senator from Kentucky, the minority leader, whether I understood him correctly when he said that he believed that this individual, Ahmed Ghailani, if found not guilty in a court in the United States, would be released in the United States to stay here in a legal status?…If that's what he said, what is the basis for that statement?”
   
McConnell said he it was his “understanding the president's spokesman yesterday refused to say what would happen to Ghailani if he were found not guilty. Go there's some confusion about that.”

Durbin said “there's no confusion. This is such a leap to argue that if this man, who is not a resident of the United States — if i'm not mistaken, he is Tanzanian — that somehow if he is found not guilty in the courts of the United States, he is qualified to be released into our population?…He would have no legal status to stay in the United States unless we gave him one.”

Continued Durbin, “by what basis does the senator from Kentucky suggest that this man, who may have been involved in the killing of 12 Americans among 224 other people, is going to be released by President Obama into our communities and neighborhoods?”

McConnell said, “I'm only quoting the president's spokesman saying he doesn't know what would happen if Ghailani were released.”

(That's not actually what Gibbs said. Rather, he just refused to answer the question. It's not clear whether he knows or not.)

Durbin later said that he asked McConnell about “what I heard to be his statement about whether this gentleman, Ahmed Ghailani if found not guilty would be released into the United States…He said, Mr. Gibbs, the White House press secretary, led him to that conclusion.”

Said Durbin, “I think in fairness, Mr. Gibbs would have said clearly he had no intention that this President or anyone in this administration would ever release this man. And there is no right under the law that he'd be released even if he's found not guilty, into the United States population. It just is not going to happen.”

That is of course not what Gibbs said, either, when repeatedly asked.

- jpt

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