So the nation's lone remaining "enemy combatant" is coming full circle, back to Peoria where his odyssey began more than seven years ago.
Arrested in West Peoria following a routine traffic stop that piqued the interest of law enforcement in 2001, Ali S. al-Marri, a 43-year-old citizen of Qatar, will return to central Illinois to stand trial on charges he conspired to provide material support to al-Qaida in its war against the United States. Most folks would fear such charges being leveled against them. An al-Marri who's been locked up this long without knowing the evidence against him may well be relieved to be heading toward a definitive conclusion.
Indeed, as he was initially getting ready to stand trial in Peoria in June 2003 on charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI, President Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" and he fell off the radar, ultimately landing in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. There, as prisoner EC#2, he spent more than five years in largely solitary confinement, denied visits from family and, for a time, even from legal counsel. Reportedly he was subjected to conditions of deprivation severe enough that at one point concerns were formally expressed regarding his mental health.
In any event, al-Marri found himself in that predicament because the Bush Justice Department, at the time headed by John Ashcroft, believed that al-Marri had been sent to America "to help facilitate this next wave of attacks focused on Los Angeles," that he had been an associate of 9-11-01 masterminds Osama bin Laden and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed - who allegedly ratted him out during one of those "enhanced interrogation techniques," which critics say is merely code for torture- and that he had volunteered himself as a martyr to the al-Qaida cause.
Long story short, al-Marri will now get his day in court. We will discover, at long last, just how big a threat this enemy combatant was to life as Americans know it.
That, of course, is not the only court case that matters here. Arguably it's not even the most important one. That would be al-Marri's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on his situation and the constitutionality of an American president exercising the muscle to lock someone up indefinitely, without charge.
Alas, the Obama administration doesn't want that to happen. On Wednesday the White House asked the Supreme Court to just drop the whole thing, arguing that al-Marri's upcoming civilian trial makes his case before the high court "entirely abstract," with any decision that would emerge merely "a hypothetical pronouncement that would not affect the legal rights of (al-Marri) or any other person."
We disagree. In fact this decision would have broad implications, for al-Marri specifically and for others, arguably the 240 prisoners held at Guantanamo among them. As his attorneys rightly point out, Uncle Sam "has not renounced the legal authority under which al-Marri was designated and detained as an 'enemy combatant' and has made no commitment that al-Marri will not be re-designated ... in the future."
Beyond that, there are much bigger issues at stake here, for Americans and for the rest of the world. What are the limits of presidential power during wartime? How far does the battlefield extend? Could an "enemy combatant" really be "a little old lady in Switzerland" who gave money to a charity that, unbeknownst to her, was fronting for a terrorist organization, as a Bush administration lawyer once indicated? Does the writ of habeas corpus still exist? Does it only apply to U.S. citizens? Is America still a nation where the rule of law prevails, or have we transitioned to the rule of men?
We look to the Supreme Court for direction on matters like these. It would be a terrible mistake for its nine members to bail out, to abdicate their responsibility, now. The nation deserves clarity on these matters.
We are disappointed in the Obama administration on this score. We appreciate that the president may not want to preclude the use of any tool in the war on terrorism, but candidate Obama didn't say that on the campaign trail, where he certainly had no qualms about condemning this very tactic. In his inaugural address, he made it quite clear that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
Again, ours is no defense of al-Marri, whose alleged behavior is at the very least suspicious - arriving in Chicago the day before 9-11, transporting his family by taxi to Peoria, carrying around a briefcase full of cash, his computer filled with lectures by bin Laden and material about how to make deadly poisons, his curious connections to a known al-Qaida financier. If he's guilty, he deserves whatever he has coming to him.
This trial is a test, too. To what degree will the court allow the admission of evidence obtained during alleged torture, for example? It may very well clarify the limits of civilian courts in no-man's-land legal matters like these.
Again, all eyes turn to Peoria, as they should. We'll wager the world will not end, no matter the outcome.