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Published: 2/20/2010

Ex-CIA counsel faults role politics play in terror trials

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

There is little disagreement among legal experts that terrorism suspects being held at Guantamano Bay and other prisons are entitled to have their cases heard in court.

However, opinions differ on whether the detainees should be prosecuted in civilian courts or before a military panel.

Yesterday, former acting CIA General Counsel John Rizzo told Toledo-area lawyers attending a law school seminar that political motives were behind the system for handling detainees that was put in place after the 2001 terror attacks.

"This whole process has been political from the beginning and it is going to remain political," Mr. Rizzo told lawyers and judges at the University of Toledo college of law.

Mr. Rizzo, who left the CIA last year after a 34-year career with the agency, was on a panel that addressed revisions enacted last year to the Military Commissions Act.

"Many of the key decisions that have been made and that are going to be made are going to be based largely on political considerations," he said.

The forum, titled The Military Commissions Act of 2009: Back to the Future or The Fix for a Flawed System?, was sponsored by the Toledo Law Review.

The federal act that established the trial process for terrorist suspects was signed into law in 2006 by then-President George W. Bush after the Supreme Court declared the previous system unconstitutional.

Mr. Rizzo said the trial process was developed without consulting the CIA or seeking input from the agency, and that political indecisiveness and bureaucratic inertia have dramatically slowed the prosecution of terrorism cases.

"By the end of the 2007 to 2008 time frame, I believe the process had been set up that was viable," he said. "Ironically, the best cases, the most organized, the most clean, and the most problem-free cases that we saw were for the 911 suspects."

Capt. Glenn Sulmasy, a professor of law at the Coast Guard Academy who was on the panel with Mr. Rizzo, said the right system for handling the cases was neither a civilian court nor a military commission. Instead, Captain Sulmasy advocates a hybrid mixture combining the military commission system and the civilian court process.

"We can't look at this in a vacuum," he said. "We need to have a broader strategy on how to approach it."

Mr. Rizzo, who left the CIA eight months into President Obama's administration, was critical of the decision to close the detainee prison on the U.S. Naval Base at Guantamano Bay, a move he described as political.

"I honestly don't believe that they realized how complicated closing Guantamano Bay would be," he said. "It simply was not realistic to think they could close in a period of one year."

Contact Mark Reiter at:

markreiter@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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