Counter-Terrorism: Protecting the Crown Jewels


March 20, 2007: The military commissions for al Qaeda terrorists have started, and already, a new picture of what al Qaeda was planning has been revealed. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the masterminds behind the September 11, 2001 attack, has revealed as many as 29 different plats, including a plan to crash a plane into Heathrow Airport in London. His trial, and the others, will hold these terrorists accountable without compromising intelligence.

These proceedings have a delicate task. On the one hand, they need to give the terrorists a fair trial before deciding guilt or innocence. Part of this task involves being as open as possible about the process. This has been done through releasing transcripts, and providing unclassified summaries. The Department of Defense (DOD) has also released materials on the process that will be used to try the terrorists.. However, the DOD is also in the position of having to protect sources of intelligence and the methods of gathering it.

The protection of methods and sources is important, not only for the war on terror, but for other potential conflicts in the future. These "methods and sources" are often considered the crown jewels of many intelligence agencies. Often these can be compromised merely because someone knows enough about what the United States knows and can then figure out who the snitch is. Said snitch's fate is not going to be pleasant, and it will be used to keep others from talking as well. This is not abstract theory - evidence from the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman turned over to defense counsel was later discovered in al-Qaeda's hands, arguably making it easier to pull off other terrorist attacks.

One thing to note from the transcript of the investigation , is that the detainees are given a choice between having the proceedings done in Arabic or English. There are also personal representatives and translators. The personnel involved are not identified, and the press is excluded from these hearings for reasons of national security. The recent attempts to kidnap British soldiers in the UK show that there are risks for personnel far from any active combat theater.

The military commissions offer the best chance to hold terrorists like Mohammed and other senior al Qaeda personnel accountable for their actions, including the beheading of reporter Daniel Pearl while avoiding the release of classified information. If anyone doubts the need for Guantanamo Bay, one should read Mohammed's confession, and then decide whose rights are more important. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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