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CRS: Comparison of Rights in Military Commission Trials and Trials in Federal Criminal Court

Author: Jennifer K. Elsea
May 9, 2012


This Congressional Reseach Service report briefly summarizes the legal issues raised by the choice of forum for trying accused terrorists, and provides a chart comparing selected military commissions rules under the Military Commissions Act to the corresponding rules that apply in federal court.

The initiation of military commission proceedings against Khalid Sheik Mohammad and four others for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks has focused renewed attention on the differences between trials in federal court and those conducted by military commission. The decision to try the defendants in military court required a reversal in policy by the Obama Administration, which had publicly announced in November 2009 its plans to transfer the five detainees from the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the United States to stand trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for criminal offenses related to the 9/11 attacks. The Administration's plans to try these and possibly other Guantanamo detainees in federal court proved controversial, and Congress responded by enacting funding restrictions which effectively barred any non-citizen held at Guantanamo from being transferred into the United States, including for prosecution. These restrictions, which have been extended for the duration of FY2012, effectively make military commissions the only viable option for trying detainees held at Guantanamo for the foreseeable future, and have resulted in the Administration choosing to reintroduce charges against Mohammed and his co-defendants before a military commission.

While military commission proceedings have been instituted against some suspected enemy belligerents held at Guantanamo, the Obama Administration has opted to bring charges in federal criminal court against terrorist suspects arrested in the United States, as well as some terrorist suspects who were taken into U.S. custody abroad but who were not transferred to Guantanamo. The Administration's choice of forums in which to prosecute certain terrorist suspects, including those believed to be associated with Al Qaeda, has focused attention on the procedural differences between trials in federal court and those conducted under the Military Commissions Act (P.L. 109-366), as amended by the Military Commissions Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-84, Title XVIII). Some who oppose the use of federal criminal courts argue that bringing detainees to the United States for trial poses a security threat and risks disclosing classified information, or could result in the acquittal of persons who are guilty. Others have praised the efficacy and fairness of the federal court system and have argued that it is suitable for trying terrorist suspects and wartime detainees, and have also voiced confidence in the courts' ability to protect national security while achieving justice that will be perceived as such among U.S. allies abroad. Some continue to object to the trials of detainees by military commission, despite the amendments Congress enacted as part of the Military Commissions Act of 2009, because they say it demonstrates a less than full commitment to justice or that it casts doubt on the strength of the government's case against those detainees.

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