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By Ben Wizner, Staff Attorney for the ACLU's National Security Project. Ben is in Guantánamo this week for the trial of Salim Ahmed Hamdan.

It was movie day at the military commission trial of Salim  Hamdan — or rather, in the government’s words, "motion picture presentation" day. The motion picture in question was The Al-Qaida Plan, a 90-minute video commissioned by the Pentagon for use at military tribunals and prepared and presented by one Evan Kohlman, a 29-year-old self-described "International  Terrorism Consultant" who has been dubbed "the Doogie Howser of Terrorism." The purpose of this exercise was to allow the prosecution to present a stockpile of footage depicting bearded Arabs firing guns, charred bodies, gruesome beheadings, and the September 11 carnage — even though every single government witness to take the stand has testified that Hamdan had no role in the planning or execution of any terrorist attack, let alone 9/11.

Kohlman — who studied Al Qaeda in college, does not speak Arabic, has no graduate degree in a relevant field, and has never traveled to Afghanistan or Pakistan — is the kind of witness who might (ok, did) gravely intone:  "Unfortunately, I know Bin Laden’s voice better than I know the voices of my own family members" — and who described another Al Qaeda member as  "currently dead." And The Al-Qaida Plan is the kind of film that can present an entire chapter about the rise of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan without a  single mention of the U.S. role in funding those fighters. (Even Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts know better. Still, Kohlman assured the commission members that all of his work was "carefully footnoted."

He made The Al-Qaida Plan at the government’s request and expense, and its title — chosen by Kohlman and the prosecution — is expressly derivative of the The  Nazi Plan, a film that was shown at the Nuremberg tribunals. (That film required only 45 minutes to catalog the Nazi horror, but then again, 9/11 changed everything.) You might think that the government would be less eager to invite comparisons to Nuremberg. Can anyone imagine those historic proceedings commencing with the prosecution of Hitler’s driver? In fact, that driver did appear at Nuremberg: as a witness, not a defendant. As commenter Gary Norton pointed out on Saturday, he was never charged and evidently died of old age.

As it happens, The Al-Qaida Plan was not the first movie I saw at Guantánamo this week. On Friday night, a few of us went to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, at Guantánamo’s Downtown Lyceum, a free, open-air movie theater. (We were glad to see the presiding military  judge, Navy Captain Keith Allred, taking in the scene as well.) The picture was poor and the sound quality even worse, so I missed a fair amount and decided to read some reviews.

The Dark Knight, it turns out, is a kind of Rorschach test. Andrew Klavan, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, makes the claim that the film is "a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war." (No, I did not make that up. Click the link, but be forewarned: reading Klavan's piece might make you dumber.) Meanwhile, over on AlterNet, Michael Dudley sees a film that "reveals the supposed existential crisis of the ‘war on terror’ for the cruel and dehumanizing proposition it is."

In much the same way, critics and defenders of the Guantánamo military commissions seem to be observing two entirely different trials. Prosecutors and Pentagon public affairs officers are quick to point to recognizable hallmarks of a fair trial system: Hamdan has superb lawyers, for example, and his guilt must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. I, on the other hand, might emphasize certain  departures from ordinary criminal trials, like the unique and extraordinary fact that Hamdan is already serving an effective life sentence as an "enemy combatant," and may be detained until the "cessation of hostilities" in the "war on terror" — whatever that means — even if he is somehow acquitted. Or, that military commission rules permit a defendant to be convicted on the basis of evidence that has literally been beaten out of him and other prisoners.

On Tuesday, Evan Kohlman and The Al-Qaida Plan will face cross-examination by the defense, and observers will have one more chance to experience pride or shame, tragedy or farce.

Originally posted to ACLU on Tue Jul 29, 2008 at 08:28 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  One could make the argument that these sham (5+ / 0-)

    trials at Gitmo are evidence that Al Qaida has already won the War on Terra.  We are so much a lesser nation, in so many horrific ways, than we were before 9/11--or pre-Bush43, if you prefer, which I do.

  •  Counter productive (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    luckylizard

    Doesn't prosecuting this type of Qaeda affiliated person actually deter people in their situation from possibly helping out? It just seems to be entirely counter intuitive.

  •  Even though the news you bring is pretty (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    imabluemerkin, luckylizard

    darn depressing, I really appreciate that you're bringing it and I appreciate much more the work you're doing for some modicum of justice in what is shaping up to be a complete farce.  That's what I see in the ink blot.  The story of Hitler's driver really says it all to me.

    P.S.  I read Klavan's piece.  Shock and awe indeed.  That is the dumbest piece of hot garbage I've read in my memory.  Unbelievable.  Unfriggingbelievable.  Was that written by a human being?!  The bar has been lowered, for the millionth time.

    The readiness is all

    by mrchumchum on Tue Jul 29, 2008 at 09:06:15 AM PDT

  •  Guilt by Association (0+ / 0-)

    I say, save the US money and send him back to Yemen. He is a none threat. If he makes his way back to an Islamic battlefield, so be it.

    Maybe he won't be as lucky next time. He survived.

    ...it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. 1776

    by Samart on Tue Jul 29, 2008 at 09:43:44 AM PDT

  •  This guy (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    luckylizard

    was paid $25,000 for his appearance in the trial while Geoffrey Corn, a law professor and former judge advocate general, who was called as an expert witness for the defense earlier in the day, was paid nothing tribunal Convening Authority Susan J. Crawford "determined that he was not relevant."
    (LA Times, July 29, 2008)

    This is what a kangaroo court looks like.

  •  wiki link (0+ / 0-)

    The wiki link is broken. Here's the correct one:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    Great post. Keep up the good work. The surest sign of a fair trial is the possibility of acquittal, which happened at Nuremberg. But in this case?

    "[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time," recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, which had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

    "I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process," Davis continued. "At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, 'Wait a minute, we can't have acquittals. If we've been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can't have acquittals. We've got to have convictions.'"

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