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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Terrorizing Judges 

As you may remember, federal judges can be impeached, and though such a punishment has been mentioned by at least one blogger in regards to the judge in question, it appears that a coordinated smear campaign is going to suffice to still the roiled waters of rightwing outrage. And no, this is not a case based on what we usually think of as the "culture war" issues, although, in its deepest meaning, this case is centrally about that conflict, as it is about what makes as both strong and ourselves, as Americans.

The case being asserted against U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour is fairly easy to understand. Poor man, he indicted himself with the following words, uttered last week in open court on the occasion of his sentencing of Ahmed Ressam, sometimes known as the millennium bomber, otherwise known as a hapless, Algerian immigrant to Canada who was caught on the eve of 2000 by several alert officials at the Canadian/US border, as he tried to cross, heading south with a car loaded with explosives and a plan to blow up LAX.

Here is what Judge Coughenour had to say about the implications of the Ressum case: (Link courtesy of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
"Okay. Let me say a few things. First of all, it will come as no surprise to anybody that this sentencing is one that I have struggled with a great deal, more than any other sentencing that I've had in the 24 years I've been on the bench.

"I've done my very best to arrive at a period of confinement that appropriately recognizes the severity of the intended offense, but also recognizes the practicalities of the parties' positions before trial and the cooperation of Mr. Ressam, even though it did terminate prematurely.

"The message I would hope to convey in today's sentencing is twofold:

"First, that we have the resolve in this country to deal with the subject of terrorism and people who engage in it should be prepared to sacrifice a major portion of their life in confinement.

"Secondly, though, I would like to convey the message that our system works. We did not need to use a secret military tribunal, or detain the defendant indefinitely as an enemy combatant, or deny him the right to counsel, or invoke any proceedings beyond those guaranteed by or contrary to the United States Constitution.

"I would suggest that the message to the world from today's sentencing is that our courts have not abandoned our commitment to the ideals that set our nation apart. We can deal with the threats to our national security without denying the accused fundamental constitutional protections.

"Despite the fact that Mr. Ressam is not an American citizen and despite the fact that he entered this country intent upon killing American citizens, he received an effective, vigorous defense, and the opportunity to have his guilt or innocence determined by a jury of 12 ordinary citizens.

"Most importantly, all of this occurred in the sunlight of a public trial. There were no secret proceedings, no indefinite detention, no denial of counsel.

"The tragedy of September 11th shook our sense of security and made us realize that we, too, are vulnerable to acts of terrorism.

"Unfortunately, some believe that this threat renders our Constitution obsolete. This is a Constitution for which men and women have died and continue to die and which has made us a model among nations. If that view is allowed to prevail, the terrorists will have won.

"It is my sworn duty, and as long as there is breath in my body I'll perform it, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We will be in recess."
I have quoted the judge in full because what he said strikes me as so important, so moving, and so inspiring. Others reacted differently.

Within forty-eight hours, his words, along with the facts of the case, were being disassembled and rearranged into the shape of a bullseye plastered across an e-poster that portrayed this Ronald Reagan appointeee as The Poster Judge for why we need the Patriot Act, and military tribunnals, and anything else Bush & Co deem necessary to convince us that we are AT WAR, and why we should regard any American who has a different view as not merely wrong, but as one who is aiding and abbeting our "violently extreme," (according to the Bush administration's most current nomenclature), enemies around the world.

Since we're all too familiar with such arguments and the copious cross-quoting endemic to rightwing blogs, what follows is a sampler of rightwing opinion on the subject of Judge Coughenour. (Don't be fooled by their tone of authority borne of total knowledge of all relevant facts; be assured there is more to this story.)

Rick Edwards at PowerPundit was early on the scene; you can read his summary here, clearly based on this AP report, which emphasized the differences between the judge and the prosecutor over length of sentence because of Ressam's truncated cooperation with the government.

Michele Malkin riffs off of Hugh Hewitt and Captains Quarters, but the title she choose for her post pretty much says it all:
THE TERRORISTS' LITTLE HELPER: JUDGE JOHN COUGHENOUR

Reckless judicial arrogance was on display in Seattle earlier today during the sentencing hearing for al Qaeda operative Ahmed Ressam, the would-be Millennium bomber.

Hugh Hewitt is all over the actions and statement of Judge John Coughenour, a Reagan appointee who is an embarrassment to conservatives and an impediment to winning the War on Terror. The headlines say Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in jail for plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on the millennium. Prosecutors pushed for the max: 35 years. Ressam will get credit for the 5 years he has already been in custody; he may be out and free to do al Qaeda's bidding again in as little as 14 years.

Coughenour used the occasion to pat himself on the back, express his opposition to military tribunals and detention of enemy combatants, and argue in support of applying the full panoply of constitutional rights to foreign al Qaeda conspirators. Hewitt points to Coughenour's sentencing sermon and writes:
Whatever the message the judge hoped to send, the one he in fact did send was to Islamicists all around the globe: Come to America. Try and kill us. Either you succeed and get to your version of heaven, or you'll get a second chance 22 years later after spending a couple of decades setting up networks that can help you with round 2.

The arrogance of this renegade judge's lecture is simply beyond belief. Congress should summon the judge to testify as to his inane remarks, but precede and follow his appearnce with panels comprised of vitims of terror and the families of military killed in the war.

I am ashamed to say Judge Coughenour is a Reagan appointee.
Double-ditto that.
Hugh Hewitt was not content to leave it at that. In an UPDATE to the original post, Hewitt sumarizes past outrages in Judge Coughenour's caseload, and compares Reesam's sentence to those of other "violent extremists," including some Montana militiamen sentenced by Coughenour, the guards at Abu Ghriab, and most interestingly, to Richard Reid, the shoe bomber; remember this one, we'll be coming back to it.

Spurred on by angry emailers, in another post, Hewitt offers ways to fight back against the arrogance of this judge - everything from being sure not to vote for Maria Cantwell to sending the judge an umbrella; it took me a moment to figure out that one - the heavy annual rainfall in Seattle? Silly me, how could I have missed the reference to Lord Chamberlain and - wait for it - appeasement.
Maybe he will get five of Chamberlain's props, maybe 50. But each time an umbrella arrives he will know that a citizen reviewed his self-serving sentencing statement and found it the sort of timorous sophistry that encourages more attacks rather than sending any sort of message of resoluteness to the terrorists.
Not only is this judge "arrogant," he is timorously arrogant.

Go back and read what the judge said and then ask yourself how we got from there to here, from Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, et al, to Bush & Co, wherein self-described superpatriots, most of whom, please note, do not live at the margins of our political culture, no indeed not, can conflate a ringing endorsement of the on-going power of our founding document with foolish, weak-kneed appeasement, and can suggest, in all apparant seriousness, that a federal judge should be hauled in front of a congressional inquiry to answer for comments made from the bench in defense of that document?

Malkin, quoting herself, reminds us of the problems of bringing terrorists to justice in a criminal proceeding - you know, all that secret intelligence that can be exposed in an open courtroom. Although she points to the trial of Ramsi Yussef, at least she doesn't mention the usual talking point endlessly reiterated about it - that our ability to monitor cell phones was exposed and thus, terrorists stopped using them. Never mind that the recent European arrests of suspects tied to the London bombings were tracked by their cell phones. Nevermind that at a certain point, even the dimmest among the Al Queda cadre would have figured out that someone was listening to their cell phone conversations. Never mind that the potential problems Malkin brings up in lieu of that one are equally as dim-witted: Moussaoui may have demanded access to classified documents, or to suspected terrorists in custody overseas, but an American judge had no difficulty denying those requests; nor, thus far, has there been any known instances of "witness" intimidation.

On such slender potential protections of intelligence are we supposed to say "au revoir" to the constitution, as well as to the most minimal standards of human decency.

At Captains' Quarters, a guest blogger added these gems to the conversation:
Just a warning, as if any were needed, that just because a judge is a solid Republican, appointed by the most "Republican" Republican president in decades and confirmed by a staunchly Republican Senate, doesn't automatically mean he can't turn out to be an ass.
And after providing the judge's remarks in full, this final comment:
I rest my case for military tribunals: at least if they were secret, we wouldn't have to listen to boneheaded lectures by buffoons in black!
Why do these rightwingers hate America?

Captain Ed himself arrived in time to add his own unique endorsement to the reviling of Judge Coughenour:
Not only do I endorse everything Dafydd said, I have to add my two cents as an addendum. Please remember that this case got highlighted by the Kerry campaign during last year's election as the model for handling terrorists, as opposed to the wartime approach favored by the Bush administration. This shows that our first instincts were correct, and that the only advantage of using civilian courts to fight international terrorists will be to highlight the damage that Presidents can do when they pick idiots to sit on the federal bench.

However, I will point out something that Judge Coughenour seems to have forgotten in his zeal to hold himself up as a Constitutional protector, as opposed to the rest of us police-state brownshirts. We captured this terrorist on American soil, mostly by luck and the sharp eye of airport security. Under most circumstances, that does mean that the civilian courts would come into play. If we had traced the terrorist using highly-sensitive intelligence capabilities, however, we would have to have exposed them in Judge Coughenour's court, making them unusable after a single prosecution.

edit

Evidently, because of what he was charged with and convicted of, Rassem could have gotten a maximum of 35 years. If Coughenour had given him the max, I would have been disappointed that Rassem couldn't have gotten more, but I would not have held it against the judge; judges cannot impose arbitrarily draconian prison terms -- they are bound by the legal maximums.

But the good judge gave this insect only 63% of what he could have given... and with all the time off and time served, he'll actually be out after serving less than 40% of what he could have been required to serve. This is not simply wrong... it is unconscionable.

If this is the model that Kerry and the pirates have for fighting the war on terrorism, then it's no wonder they've been frozen out of power ever since 9/11.
There is so much misinformation in that statement, I hardly know where to begin; for now, let me only point out that "airport security" had nothing to do with apprehending Ressam, that border agents from both Canada and this country we're responsible for his capture, operating on both American and Canadian soil, and most important, that prosecuting Ressam involved tracking his past movements and contacts using "highly-sensitive intelligence capabilities." We'll come back to that thirty-five year sentence and Kerry cluelessness.

We know that rightwing blogs are powerful, but as of Tuesday evening, when Bill O'Reilly, (as seen here by The Heretik) swivelled that most fearful of media WMDs, his "Talking Points Memo," into position to take aim at Judge Coughenour, was not his fate pretty much sealed?

Based on no particular evidence, O'Reilly surmized that both the sentence and the judge's words were a shot across the Bush bow:
The Factor felt that Judge Coughenour was making a political statement in issuing a light sentence to Ressam. "This guy is sending a message to the Bush administration--'If you keep messing around like you are, because I don't like it, I'm going to give these guys lesser sentences.' I think that's the message here." Benjamin Cardoza Law professor Marci Hamilton agreed that it appeared the judge used his position to issue his own political message. "It sure did look like he set himself up an opportunity to pontificate from the bench? it certainly was beyond what he should have been doing. The point of justice is 'Lady Justice is blind.' It's not supposed to be a political statement."

That's O'Reilly's own formulation of the discussion, no transcript being readily available. God knows, it's no surprise to discover yet again that O'Reilly is a ridiculous figure who is incapable of understanding logic, reason, or how to assemble facts to make a point, and Professor Hamilton seemed as genuinely a dull bulb as her comment above would suggest, but what was truly remarkable about the entire discussion, which included FOX'S Judge-in-Residence, Andrew P. Napolitano, was the total absence of any systematic awareness of the facts of this case, a condition the cross-discussion on rightwing blogs also demonstrated.

O'Reilly mentioned that Ressam had cooperated with authorities, but immediately dismissed that important fact because Ressam had recently stopped cooperating. Naplitano insisted that Ressam's cooperation had been substantial, although the judge seemed to think it resulted from a plea deal, which is just plain wrong. And both the law professor and the Judge had no difficulty with O'Reilly comparing those 22 years to the 35 years the Prosecutors were asking for, when in fact, the actual sentence was 27 years, the original sentence offered by the U.S. government in exchange for Ressam's cooperation, minus time served AFTER Ressam's conviction, a factor that would have been similarly deducted from the prosecutor's desired 35 year sentence, so the actual comparison should have been between 27 and 35 years, or between 22 and 30 years.

Nits not worth picking, you say?

Well, surely the fact that Ressam stood trial and was convicted by a jury is more than a nit, and yet that fact is absent from all rightwing awareness of this case, despite it being explicitly stated by Judge Coughenour in his comments from the bench. And remember that maximum 35 year sentence? Ressam was convicted in early April of 2001, after a three week trial, of nine criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism; what Ressam was facing at that point was a sentence of between 57 and 130 years in prison. You can make your own conclusions about who is the clueless one, John Kerry or Captain Ed.

Had anyone on the right been interested in finding out the facts of this case, or had they been interested in the trial at the time, they would have had another instance of a Coughenour decision about which to rage. A noted French terrorism expert, knowledgeable about Al Queda, and with direct knowledge of some of the facts of Ressum's history was called by the prosecution. Judge Coughenour heard Jean-Louis Bruguiere's testimony in the absence of the jury, and though the judge acknowledged Bruguiere's superior expertise, his testimony was disallowed as too prejudicial to Ressam, in view of the volume of evidence against the accussed amassed by the prosecution.

Imagine the howls of rage that would have issued from the right, if the right had been paying attention to this trial. They weren't, just as the Bush administration wasn't paying attention to the concerns about Osama Bin Ladin expressed directly to them by departing members of the Clinton administration.

As it turned out, Judge Coughenour was right about the sufficiency of the prosecution's case.

Faced with spending the rest of his life in an American prison, Ressam agreed to cooperate with the US government. However, the severity of the sentence appears not to have been the only factor in his decision.
Through 16 months of detention and trial, Ressam stayed true to his training and maintained the secrets of his jihad. But after his conviction, he was shaky — isolated from family and his Islamist brothers, and still taking medicine for the malaria he had caught in the Afghanistan camps.

He grew attached to his lawyers, in particular to Oliver, a small, light-haired woman fluent in French. He would not shake hands with her, as he did with his male lawyers, but he spoke to her gently.

Her terrorist client, Oliver said, was "very sweet. Very polite."

Ressam confided to his lawyers that he had found the trial surprisingly fair. The judge had treated him respectfully. The experience was not at all what he expected of the country he had been taught to hate.

Ressam also told Oliver he was unsure of the morality of his plan to massacre innocent holiday travelers. He said he needed to study the Quran to see if he had misunderstood passages.

So when Justice Department lawyers offered a deal to reduce his sentence, Ressam was ready to listen. (my emphasis) The terms were simple: His minimum sentence would be cut in half, to 27 years. In return, he had to testify against an associate, Mokhtar Haouari, and others. He had to reveal all he knew about al-Qaida — plots, training, tactics.

Ahmed Ressam became a terrorist turncoat.

On May 10, 2001, FBI Agent Fred Humphries questioned Ressam, the first of dozens of interviews. The information was invaluable — and terrifying. He explained how he was recruited in Montreal and funneled into the bin Laden camps. He talked in detail about training with Taliban-supplied weapons. He informed on Abu Zubaydah, Abu Doha and other top al-Qaida operatives. He provided the names of jihad fighters he had met in the camps. He revealed that he had contemplated blowing up an FBI office and the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.

He also confirmed one of the greatest fears of the CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies: The camps had trained thousands of men in chemical warfare.

Ressam told Humphries about putting on a gas mask, then watching as an instructor put a small dog in a box. The man added a small amount of cyanide and sulfuric acid, creating poison gas. The dog convulsed and died.

If you place this cyanide gas box near the air intake of an office building, the instructor had said, many people can be killed.
I'm quoting here from a superb multi-part series, "The Terrorists Within," that a group of staff writers undertook for the Seattle Times on the subject of Ahmed Ressam.

Who gets credit for turning Ressam? Everyone reponsible for Ressam receiving a fair trail, as spelled out in our constitution, everyone - the prosecutors, the defense lawyers, all of them court-appointed public defenders, and finally Judge Coughenor.

Karl Rove, having watched what happened on 9/11, may have prepared for war, but he might have done better, along with all the big honchos of the Bush administration, starting with the President, to have paid attention to that which they had hitherto ignored, and especially a case like Ressam's, of which it could almost be said that a kind of therapy, consisting of everything that is best about this country and its jurisprudence, turned a confirmed Al Queda operative into an astonishingly cooperative informant and witness.

How valuable was Ressam's information? Let us count the ways.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ressam's solitude has been broken by a stream of visitors, often FBI agents such as Fred Humphries, but also investigators from Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

With federal public defender Jo Ann Oliver at his side, he is told names and shown photographs of suspected terrorists and asked if he knows them.

On several occasions, Ressam has been flown to New York City for similar questioning. There, he is held in a detention center just blocks from Ground Zero.

Ressam did not recognize any of the 19 suicide hijackers from Sept. 11. But he was able to identify student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui of Minneapolis, now in U.S. custody, as a trainee from Osama bin Laden's Khalden camp.

Ressam informed on Abu Doha, a London-based Algerian who was the brains and money behind Ressam's Los Angeles airport plot. He identified Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran the Khalden camp, and Abu Sulieman, who taught bomb-making at the Darunta camp.

Most importantly, Ressam named the previously little-known Abu Zubaydah as a top aide to bin Laden. That helped smash the notion that Zubaydah, also now in U.S. custody, was little more than a travel agent for terrorist wannabes making their way to the al-Qaida camps.

Ressam is expected to testify at the trials of these and other suspected terrorists.

So it is that Ahmed Ressam — the boy who loved to fish in the Mediterranean, the teenager who loved to dance at discothèques, the young man who tried and failed to get into college, who connected with fanatical Muslims in Montreal, who learned to kill in bin Laden's camps, who plotted to massacre American citizens — has become one of the U.S. government's most valuable weapons in the war against terror.
Remember, I promised we'd get back to Richard Reid, the shoe bomber:
Ressam's information was given to anti-terrorism field agents around the world _ in one case, helping to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to blow up aboard an American Airlines flight in 2001. (link)
Doesn't the Bush administration deserve some credit here, for the turning of Ahmed Ressam? Or, did the intervention of the Bush DOJ contribute to Ressam's truncated cooperation?

That and other fascinating possibilities will be addressed in Part 2, which will be appearing on this blog no later than tomorrow morning.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE Welcome, Kossacks, to The Mighty Corrente Building. Nice work, Leah.

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