Al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is seen in this image from television aired by the Al Jazeera satellite network in October 2001.
(USA TODAY) -- Sulaiman Abu Ghayth pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring to
kill Americans Friday in a brief appearance in a New York federal
courtroom, but the mere presence of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law in the
USA -- a short distance from where the World Trade Center towers once
stood -- has revived an emotional debate over whether terror suspects
should be tried in civilian court.
Republican lawmakers seized on
the Justice Department's decision to bring the strident al-Qaeda
spokesman to New York, saying he belonged in military custody at the
U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
MORE: White House says terror suspect prosecution belongs in NYC
are disturbed by the administration's decision to bring ... a foreign
member of al-Qaeda charged with conspiring to kill Americans - to New
York for trial in federal court," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen.
Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a joint statement.
administration's lack of a wartime detention policy for foreign members
of al-Qaeda, as well as its refusal to detain and interrogate these
individuals at Guantanamo, makes our nation less safe," the lawmakers
said. "We are at war with al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups, and
America's detention policy must reflect that reality."
House on Friday defended the decision to try Ghayth on U.S. soil, and
noted that similar decisions were made in the prosecutions of Faisal
Shahzad, a U.S. citizen who unsuccessfully attempted to detonate a car
bomb in Time Square in 2010 and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian
man who became known as the "underwear bomber" for his unsuccessful
attempt to blowup a U.S.-bound flight on Christmas Day in 2009.
"There was broad consensus across the United States government -- the
Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, the
Intelligence community agree - that the best way to protect our
national security interest is to prosecute Abu Ghayth in an Article 3
court," said White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York officials were not
consulted before the decision was made to try Ghayth in New York.
Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said action reflected the
administration's policy to "prosecute whenever feasible and in the
national security interests of the United States.''
prosecution of Ghayth in federal court was the best option in this case
because of the nature of (his) conduct and the charges available to
prosecutors in federal court,'' Hornbuckle said.
appeared in videos and issued proclamations immediately after the Sept.
11 attacks, warning that the assaults would continue, represents the
highest ranking operative set to face civilian trial in the USA since
the administration abandoned a similar plan to prosecute 9/11 mastermind
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 2011.
At that time, Bloomberg and New
York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly raised questions about the costs of
securing such a trial, while some Sept. 11 victims' relatives suggested
the prosecution would be too painful to bear and could encourage new
"While New York City must remain vigilant to continued
terrorists threats against it, Abu Ghayth's apprehension and prosecution
promises to close another chapter in al-Qaeda's notoriously violent
history of killing Americans," Kelly said in a written statement after
the charges against Ghayth were unsealed.
NYPD spokesman Paul
Browne said Friday that there is "no known specific threat against the
city as a result of Abu Ghayth's presence here.''
Rep. Pete King,
R-N.Y., who opposed the administration's plan to prosecute Mohammed in
civilian court, took a less adversarial position in Ghayth's case.
a federal court trial of Abu Ghayth in lower Manhattan would not
present the same security issues as a trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, I
strongly believe as a matter of policy that military tribunals are the
proper venue for enemy combatants,'' King said.
"If the Abu Ghayth
trial does go forward in federal court it must not be used as a
precedent for future enemy combatants who should be tried at
A group representing 9/11 victims' families did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rights First, which supports civilian prosecutions, said civilian
courts have proved to be "efficient'' venues for trying terror cases.
data the group obtained from the Justice Department through a Freedom
of Information Act request, the group said 500 cases related to
international terrorism have moved through the federal court system. Of
those, 67 cases have involved "individuals captured overseas.''
By comparison, according to Human Rights First, military commissions have convicted seven people since Sept. 11.