There is an on-going debate about whether to try terrorists and their sponsors in civilian court or before military tribunals. The administration has preferred civilian trials to a greater extent than its critics, largely because, it says, civilian trials are more likely to be accepted as fair by the international community. Assuming arguendo that the administration is correct, and that particular defendants involved with terror should be tried in civilian court, the last thing the administration ought then to do is condemn as malevolent the process it demanded.
It is thus troubling that Associate Deputy White House Counsel Rashad Hussain should have gone on record blasting as a "politically motivated persecution" the civilian trial of terrorist abettor Sami al-Arian, a case Hussain said was used to "squash dissent." Hussain's criticism is particularly odd because al-Arian pleaded guilty to a charge of providing material assistance to a terrorist organization, following a trial in which a jury acquitted him on about half the counts and deadlocked on the others.
The case provides plenty of reason for concern, starting with why the White House would place in Counsel's Office a man with such a dim view of the very justice system the President says can be relied upon to bring terrorists to book, together with such an accommodating view of a man like al-Arian. But that's not the end of it. Instead, there's a brewing scandal about the serial coverup surrounding Mr. Hussain's remarks.
When the story broke last week, the White House said that the remarks were made by another panelist in the discussion in which Hussain participated several years ago, and were mis-attributed to him. About a day later, as the prospect dawned that a tape of the discussion might exist somewhere, Hussain put out a temporizing statement that he could not remember whether he had referred to the case as a "politically motivated persecution." (This is even though, according to Michael Ledeen, Hussain says he has memorized the entire Koran, a feat far beyond the capacities of most people).
When it turned out that Politico had indeed obtained a copy of an audio tape of the panel discussion, Hussain admitted that, yes, he had used the language attributed to him, but that he now regards it as "ill-conceived or not well-formulated," whatever that might mean (i.e., is there a better "formulated" way of saying civilian trials are kangaroo courts?). Hussain went on to say:
"As a law student six years ago, I spoke on the topic of civil liberties on a panel during which I responded to comments made about the al-Arian case by Laila al-Arian who was visibly saddened by charges against her father. I made clear at the time that I was not commenting on the allegations themselves. The judicial process has now concluded, and I have full faith in its outcome."
The other part of this disquieting tale is that, very shortly after the story broke, Hussain contacted the editor of the paper in which his statements first appeared and successfully inveigled her to airbrush them, on the grounds that they had been "taken out of context" and would be poorly understood.
I believe that in other contexts, this is referred to as "deep-sixing the evidence." ( And, as is frequently the case, it doesn't work. In this day and time, someone always has a tape).
As of this morning, we are told that the President continues to have confidence in Hussain. How that is possible given the evidence that he lied to the White House itself (remember the White House's initial statement that another panelist had made the remarks -- a claim that almost surely came from Hussain himself when the WH Press Office asked him) is hard to understand.
It's hard to understand, that is, unless the President views Hussain as a uniquely kindred spirit on America's efforts to deal with terrorism, and is thus reluctant to discharge him no matter what.
There are many things one might make of this story, starting with numerous layers of dishonesty it discloses. But perhaps the most important lesson, from the standpoint of those concerned with crime and consequences, is Hussain's view that the civilian indictment of a man, convicted by his own word of providing material support to terrorism, was nothing more than a ploy by a repressive government to persecute civil libertarian "dissent." If that is what the administration actually thinks of civilian trials in the teeth of its blowhard cheerleading for them, then we'll have to make up our own minds how successful they will be, or are even designed to be.