The trial of the alleged masterminds of 9/11, which began last week at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, will address some of the most profound issues of our era. Are natural rights truly inalienable, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, or can the government take them away from those it hates or fears? Does the Constitution protect the rights of all persons who come in contact with the government, or does it protect only certain Americans, as the government argues? Can the government deny a person due process by changing the rules retroactively, or is the Constitution's guarantee of due process to all persons truly a guarantee?
These are all questions that the government does not want to answer. But it should know better, because by structuring the trial after the crime was committed and by establishing retroactive rules -- which are prohibited by the Constitution -- that have never before been used in any American civilian or military court, Congress has created and the Obama administration will conduct a trial that will resemble none in our history.
The trial is being held in Cuba because President Obama caved to political pressure from New York City politicians who did not want the trial at the location where the murders took place. In one of the few rules of criminal procedure laid down in the Constitution itself, the Framers required all trials to be held in the same judicial district where the alleged crime took place. They were familiar with the British practice of trying colonists in London for alleged crimes committed in New York. But today New York politicians and their allies in Congress and the president think they can pick and choose which parts of the Constitution to uphold and which parts they can ignore.
The Constitution guarantees the right to confront evidence and witnesses. The colonists were all too familiar with Star Chamber, a British trial system in which evidence against an accused was summarized by a clerk of the court, rather than presented by witnesses with personal knowledge or revealed in documents for all to see. In trials at Gitmo, the government may summarize evidence for the court, and it may keep documents it plans to use away from the defendants.
The rules for this trial also permit hearsay: basically, anonymous accusations that were also the hallmark of Star Chamber. They permit the Secretary of Defense, who is the boss of both the prosecutors and the judge, to replace the judge if the secretary is displeased by his rulings. This is a procedure that is taken right out of the Communist Party playbook in Stalinist Russia.