A Tale of Two Taliban

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

In the last month, a spotlight has fallen on two sharply different terrorism cases that illuminate the best and worse of America’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda:

  • The case of Mohammed Jawad, conducted with the gloves off, is a disaster.
  • The case of Bryant Vinas, conducted within the law, appears to be triumph.

Mohammed Jawad was detained in Kabul in December 2002 after a grenade was thrown at US soldiers, injuring three members of a patrol. Jawad’s age has not been established with any degree of certainty but it is not disputed that he was a minor at the time of the attack. According to Afghan government, he may have been as young as twelve.

Although the US government has yet to produce any credible evidence that Jawad was responsible for the attack – in July 2009 US District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle described the government’s case as “an outrage” and “riddled with holes” – he was labeled as a terrorist and eventually transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Read Amnesty International’s report on Jawad’s case.

Jawad was subjected to a range of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation and physical abuse. Judge Huvelle, who eventually heard Jawad’s habeas corpus petition, threw out every statement he made in US custody as “a product of torture”. On July 30, she ordered that Jawad be released by August 21.

Jawad has been illegally detained for more than six and a half years. Worse still – the United States tortured a child. And for what? Jawad could offer no actionable intelligence. The government can’t even prove he committed a crime. His detention has cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is a lose-lose scenario emblematic of the dark side approach promoted by Dick Cheney.

Bryant Neal Vinas, alias Bashir al-Ameriki, a twenty-six year old Hispanic man from Long Island, converted to Islam in 2004 and travelled to Pakistan to make contact with Al Qaeda in late 2007 or early 2008.

Vinas received weapons training from Al Qaeda with a particular concentration on explosives. In September 2008, he took part in a rocket attack on a US military base in Afghanistan.

Vinas even agreed to undertake a suicide bombing, although his handlers let him off the hook. He was, in short, a terrorist who engaged in hostile acts against the United States.

In November 2008, he was arrested in Peshwar by the Pakistani authorities. Because Vinas was an American citizen he was not shipped to Guantanamo or Bagram but instead treated like an ordinary criminal and transferred to the custody of the FBI.

Vinas’ case was handled entirely within the American criminal justice system. He was interviewed by FBI investigators within the constraints of domestic US law and with all the protections that the US constitution affords US citizens.

Operating within these constraints experienced FBI agents were able to persuade Vinas to cooperate with the US authorities and provide valuable and timely intelligence regarding potential terrorist plot.

Federal prosecutors were able to build a strong case against Vinas successfully charging him with conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, providing information to a terrorist organization, and receiving “military-type training” from a Al-Qaeda.

Vinas eventually pled guilty to these charges. He has agreed to appear as a key witness in a number of other terrorist trials and is currently a protected witness in the federal witness protection program living inside the United States.

What a contrast exists between these two cases – one effectively and efficiently handled within the law and the other, a Kafkaesque nightmare in which a minor has been abused and incarcerated for more than six years to no purpose whatsoever.

These two cases could not make it any plainer. Our criminal justice system not only can handle complex terrorism cases, it actually does a substantially better job of it than the cack-handed shadow warriors unleashed by the Bush administration.

The real tragedy is that this lesson seems to be lost on the Obama White House. Jeh Johnson’s admission before Congress that the administration may consider detaining individuals acquitted by the Military Commissions seems to set the stage for further miscarriages of justice and for yet further damage to America’s battered international reputation.

We don’t need to keep going down this path. There is a better way. We know how to do this smarter and we know how do this right. Just ask Bryant Vinas.

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