The Feds' 'Macaroni Noodle' Strategy
The embarrassing mistrial yesterday in the highly touted Holy Land Muslim charity trial in Dallas shows that there are, finally, limitations on how far the government can stretch the law and the facts in terror-support cases. But the defeat also raises the question of what the White House's new legal strategy will be in this war.
The outcome of the trial is encouraging. But the answer to question about the administration's strategy is disturbing.
In the Holy Land case, federal prosecutors couldn't manage to persuade a Texas jury -- I repeat, a Texas jury -- that five leaders of a Muslim charity provided support to a terrorist organization by sending money to charitable groups that were allegedly run by Hamas. "I thought they were not guilty across the board," one juror told the Associated Press. The case "was strung together with macaroni noodles. There was so little evidence."
So little evidence. A federal jury in Miami convicted Jose Padilla, the once-upon-a-time "dirty bomb" suspect, on little evidence. A federal jury in Virginia convicted Zacarias Moussaoui, the once-upon-a-time "20th hijacker," based on little evidence other than Moussaoui's own self-serving rants. Other lesser terror figures have been convicted for providing "material support" to terrorists based upon a broad reading of a law whose language was stretched even further after 9/11.
Sometimes, however, when you stretch a rubber band too far, it springs back. That's the lesson of the Holy Land non-verdict.
The feds were quick to say Monday that they intend to try the Holy Land men again. That would be a terrible mistake. The Justice Department should simply quit while it is behind. Such restraint would send a signal to the nation's Muslim community that the government is able to recognize legal overreaching when it occurs, and demonstrate to the rest of us that the feds are more interested in focusing their efforts upon core terror suspects -- like Binalshibh and Mohammed- - instead of bit players like the ones involved in the Dallas case.
Will the feds exercise this sort of discretion? Probably not. There probably will be a Holy Land II trial, and it probably will occur between now and the presidential election. If that occurs, don't be surprised if the next juror reaches the same conclusions the first jury did.
That would put a wrench into White House plans to showcase its legal victories against terrorism in time to secure another Republican White House. According to this story, the feds want to try "high-profile" terror suspects next year in advance of the presidential election. That means we may see (or not see) masterminds like Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheik Mohammed tried in Guantanamo Bay if and when the Supreme Court breaks the legal gridlock over military commissions.
These show trials will allow President Bush and the Republican nominee for president to proclaim to the electorate that the GOP can indeed successfully prosecute the legal battle against terrorism. It's a cynical but smart -- and increasingly necessary -- plan for the White House, especially given the results in the Holy Land case.
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