How to try terrorists

In confessing responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four other defendants may have hastened just punishment for their roles in an atrocity that killed almost 3,000 people. Satisfaction at that possibility is tempered, however, by a realization that the way these "high value" detainees have been treated has sullied this country's reputation. It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama to repair the damage.

At a chaotic hearing Monday at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the defendants signaled a willingness to enter guilty pleas, but later declined when questions arose about whether they would be eligible for the death penalty -- or, as they see it, martyrdom -- if they weren't convicted by a military jury. Even these unrepentant killers deserved better treatment, but the silver lining is that once their case is finally resolved, it might be easier for the next administration to reform or replace the military commissions created to try suspected terrorists.

Mohammed and his co-defendants are the poster children in arguments by the Bush administration for why Guantanamo detainees shouldn't be tried in civilian courts. Evidence ties them to terrorist activity, but some of it wouldn't be admissible because it was obtained using "alternative" interrogation methods (i.e. torture). Moreover, public access to some of the evidence might threaten national security. With them out of the way, there is a less compelling case for trying other detainees in military courts.

Whatever happens to Mohammed and his fellow defendants, the new administration is likely to be pressed by the courts, as the Bush administration was, to refine the procedures governing the detention and trial of suspected terrorists. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court held that inmates at Guantanamo have the constitutional right to challenge their confinement by petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus. Last week, the justices said they would rule on whether the government may indefinitely imprison a legal U.S. resident designated an "enemy combatant."

Finally, although administration officials have said that waterboarding no longer will be used, the CIA retains the right under the law to use alternative interrogation methods that are prohibited by the Army Field Manual. Obama, who has promised to close that loophole, must ensure that Congress doesn't reopen it.

Mohammed's reappearance is a reminder that the terrorist threat is real and that some of those detained after 9/11 are ruthless men who wish the worst for this country. The tragedy is that the means used to apprehend, interrogate and punish terrorists has caused collateral damage to both innocent individuals and this country's image. Obama must do better.

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