Rep. Sestak & George Pataki Debate NYC Terror Trials

Rep. Sestak & George Pataki Debate NYC Terror Trials

By The Situation Room - November 13, 2009

The e-mails have been flying all day long, responding to the decision to try the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind in New York City. Many Republicans say he's a war criminal, should not be tried like a common criminal in civilian court. Some, but not all, Democrats disagree.

Let's talk about this with two men who know the subject well, the former Governor of New York State Republican George Pataki -- he was in office, as all of us remember, on 9/11 -- and Congressman Joe Sestak, Democrat of Pennsylvania, a retired officer in the U.S. Navy.

BLITZER: He was in office, as all of us remember, on 911. And Congressman Joe Sestak, Democrat of Pennsylvania, a retired officer in the U.S. Navy.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for many coming in.


BLITZER: And Governor, let me start with you.

Why do you believe the president and the attorney general made a mistake?

GEORGE PATAKI (R), FMR. NEW YORK GOVERNOR: I think this is an outrageous decision, Wolf. What it does is it treats horrible terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as the guy who held up the corner grocery store. It poses an enormous threat to our security.

In a civil trial, in the city of New York, we are going to have to reveal every source of information we had and how we obtained that information in order to indict these now criminal defendants. We tried it before.

We did it after the 1993 bombings. We got convictions. But what happened was we had to give up information, who we knew was in al Qaeda, what are sources were. And I have no doubt that the fact that we didn't treat it as a war crime and use military tribunals is one of the reasons we were unable to prevent the attacks of September 11th.

BLITZER: All right.

PATAKI: Now, I have to tell you, eight years after the fact, reopening these wounds by bringing these criminals, these murderers to lower Manhattan is completely the wrong thing.

BLITZER: All right.

Well, Congressman, his partner, Governor Pataki's partner on 9/11, the former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, agrees completely. He says this is going back to the pre-9/11 mentality.

What say you? SESTAK: Well, I was stationed at the Pentagon when 9/11 happened. Right after that, I took over the Navy's anti-terrorism unit, where we shaped the policies to pursue al Qaeda. I went on the ground earlier in that war, then did the retaliatory strikes with the aircraft carrier battle group (ph), all to bring these perpetrators of this outrage to justice.

How can we even think about letting terrorists force us to abandon our principles? Keeping them in a black hole away from the rule of law? I defended this nation because I honestly believed it was not a rule of men, it was rule of law.

What better way to show the resolve of this nation than to bring them to New York City to see how their effort to try to destroy something has risen again. And then to bring them into that court system, to show them the strength of America, that the rule of law will show them they were wrong and throw away the keys once they've been brought to justice, it's the right way to do it.

BLITZER: All right.

Governor Pataki?

PATAKI: Congressman, thank you for your service, but, respectfully, I think your comments are really over the top and completely wrong. We don't hold people in black holes. Congress authorized military tribunals by legislation. We cannot arbitrarily execute or try or convict people.

They have rights. But they have right under military tribunals as terrorists, as war criminals. And this is something that has been a long tradition in the United States.

FDR created military tribunals against German soldiers who turned up on these shores, and that was upheld by the Supreme Court. No one is saying don't obey the rule of law, but the longstanding history of this country says we use military tribunals as part of that legal system.

BLITZER: All right.

SESTAK: Yes, Governor. But as you know, the Supreme Court said that those tribunals were wrong.

What the Supreme Court said the rule of law was that you needed to bring these men before a court which recognized the same types of procedures that civilized people do. So they threw out what Congress did time and again.

Now there's a choice. Bring them to a court system in the civilian life, or try again before a military commission. They have the evidence, they said, to throw away the keys by bringing them to a...


SESTAK: And they're trying to do with what the rule of law of the Supreme Court said.

BLITZER: But Congressman, some of the detainees at Guantanamo are going to be tried before military tribunals. So the question is, why should some have a military tribunal and others not?

SESTAK: Well, as they well said today, those that will come before the military tribunals were ones that their acts were done overseas. Their acts were ones that were done on the battlefield over there.

These men, much like when the trials were attempted over 15 years ago to be done was done here in our homeland. Bringing them there underneath the proper procedures is absolutely the right thing to do.

BLITZER: All right.


SESTAK: Why risk losing a third time before the military commission? Because we've already lost twice before the Supreme Court.

PATAKI: Congressman, this is absolute nonsense. You set off a bomb in Afghanistan, we can use military tribunals. You blow up the towers and kill 3,000 innocent civilians in New York City, and you're entitled to due process of the law and defense attorneys and publicity, and a list of every single witness and every single piece of information we use to try you? That is absurd. If we have informants in Afghanistan telling us who these murderers are, we're going to have to disclose their names.

Their lives are going to be at risk, and no one else is going to give us that information. Your position, respectfully, is...

SESTAK: That's misleading, Governor.

PATAKI: ... absurd. We are following the rule of law. We are following military tribunals that are guided by the rule of law. And to not do that horribly jeopardizes the security of the people of this country.

BLITZER: All right.

SESTAK: Governor, two points. First, you do know well that we can go in camera if we need to so that we don't divulge that.

BLITZER: In camera means a closed-door session.

SESTAK: And what do we need? And why do we fear our court systems being able to do their job? They have done it for over 200 terrorists they have thrown into jails. Why can't we do it again?

PATAKI: Let me give you one example...

SESTAK: This was an outrage that's been done, and we must throw them into jail because of it.

PATAKI: Let me give you one example. First of all, I don't think we should throw them into jail. I think we should execute them. And I think we have the legal right to do that. I disagree with you on that as well. But let me give you one example.

When we tried in civilian courts the terrorists who blew up our embassies in East Africa, we had to reveal the list of every single al Qaeda person we had identified. Within weeks, Osama bin Laden had that last.

He knew who we knew about. He knew who we didn't know about. And he could infer from that what our sources of information was.

That was a few years before the attacks on the towers. To do this again is absurdity.

Einstein said to repeat the same act and expect a different consequence is the definition of insanity. We tried it before. We got attacked. We lost thousands of civilians. This is the wrong decision.

SESTAK: No, Governor. You're wrong. And you're making -- Governor, you're making reaches there that absolutely have no connection between the dots. And you know that.

PATAKI: OK. Well, tell me. Tell me what they are. Congressman, tell me what those reaches are.

SESTAK: Absolutely, Governor.

PATAKI: Tell me. Tell me.

SESTAK: Just a moment, please.

What we have done is thrown men into that black hole in Gitmo outside the reach of law. That's not America.

PATAKI: That's not true. Congressman...

SESTAK: Now to bring them into a court system and be able to have the proper safeguards where you don't have to reveal that is absolutely the proper way to go about this.

PATAKI: Congressman, how can you say that?

SESTAK: I have great confidence in our judicial system.

PATAKI: How can you say that when the detainees in Guantanamo time and again have been able to do everything from file habeas corpus petitions to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court? Every action at Guantanamo is overseen by our legal and criminal justice system. And you know that.

You know that they have the right to bring actions and they have brought them time and again. You also know. You also know. SESTAK: But Governor, how do you say when I was on the ground in Afghanistan, saw a detainee be brought in, banging his head against the wall, and I said to the soldier, "What gives here?" He says, "Oh, $2,000 bounty. You know, they just gave it to him. Some guy with a mental challenge."

Ends up in Gitmo? And all of a sudden, we're going to keep him here under rule of law because some tribal chief turned him in and then years later we let him go back? The rule of law, sir, is what America is founded out.

PATAKI: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

SESTAK: We should basically let it stand and determine it's not a person's opinion or assertions.

BLITZER: You know, let me just read to you, Congressman -- hold on, Governor, for a second -- because not only governors are being critical of the president's decision today. Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia released a statement that said this in part -- and Congressman, I want you to react to it -- "Those who have committed acts of international terrorism are enemy combatants, just as certainly as the Japanese pilots who killed thousands of Americans at Pearl Harbor. It will be disrupted, costly, and potentially counterproductive to try them as criminals in our civilian courts."

That statement from Jim Webb.

Go ahead and respond to Senator Webb.

SESTAK: Absolutely. I have great respect for Jim Webb, but we disagree.

There is a vacuum in international law of how to define terrorists. We came up with our own, "combatant alien." And so because of that, they were outside the rule of international law and U.S. law.

No one should be outside the rule of law, particularly in the jurisdiction and the hold of America. I believe that. I believe that very strongly, because justice is what we founded this nation upon.

BLITZER: All right. Let me -- Governor, to you, I want to read a statement that the New York City police commissioner, Ray Kelly, a man I'm sure you know and admire, issued today in response to this decision by the Justice Department.

"It's highly appropriate that those accused in the deaths of nearly 3,000 human beings in New York City be tried here, and the NYPD is prepared for the security required."

You want to respond to Commissioner Kelly?

PATAKI: I have absolutely no doubt that they NYPD is capable and ready to handle the security issues that will arise. That's not the point. The point is that we will be revealing information. We will be revealing sources and witnesses that will be used unequivocally by al Qaeda to be able to figure out what our methods are, who are sources are, and to continue to plot attacks against us.

There's no question in my mind about that. It's not about not applying the rule of law. We have the opportunity under the rule of law. The Supreme Court has said to use military tribunals.

They're not arbitrary proceedings. They have to be guided by the rule of law as well.

And we have used them through the history of the country. We used them in World War II. We should be using them now against these. If ever there were barbaric terrorists, it's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his colleagues, and they deserve to die after the rule of law has been applied in military tribunals.

SESTAK: But you know what's interesting, Governor? The military tribunals, as you well know, therefore, aren't private. The same types of rules of evidence can be put forward.

There are a little differences here and there, but they'll bring out the same types of -- you know, we did put in a defense authorization bill -- I worked on it out of my committee -- to make sure that hearsay couldn't be and torture couldn't be used. Because as you know, as I do, people that are tortured often say whatever you want them to say. And so we said torture could not be permitted to...

PATAKI: The rules of evidence are very different in military tribunals.

SESTAK: Not at all, sir.

PATAKI: The rules of evidence are very different in military tribunals.

SESTAK: Not at all. They're very, very similar.

PATAKI: The procedures are different, the discovery is different.

SESTAK: What the Bush administration set up in the tribunals is very different. Now they're very, very similar...


BLITZER: But one difference, I believe, is in the federal court system it's open. There's no cameras inside, but journalists and others can go inside and watch and listen. Military tribunals can be closed, Congressman, I believe.

SESTAK: As courts can be.

PATAKI: That's correct.

SESTAK: As courts can be. In camera in courts or military tribunals because of classified information close them. But I have been to many open ones where classified information wasn't there. So the concern of the governor can be taken care of very readily by...


PATAKI: Congressman, let me ask you -- we have a witness against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who happens to be, hypothetically, an Afghani, who we paid for his testimony as to his involvement, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's involvement, on September 11th. We now have to put out in a way where al Qaeda unquestionably will find out the name of that witness.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to let you answer.


BLITZER: Congressman, go ahead and answer, because then I've got to wrap it up.

SESTAK: Absolutely. Very much enjoyed the discussion, Wolf and George.

Here's the issue. What we want to know is -- we paid him. We also paid $2,000 to bring in someone who had a mental case and they said he was the Taliban. How good is that information he told us? And by the way, do it in camera, in quiet, because we want to know if we're persecuting someone wrongly because we paid him just like we did that mentally deranged individual who they told us was the Taliban.

PATAKI: Of course we knew. Military tribunals determine that. Fairly and under the rule of law.

BLITZER: All right.


PATAKI: And Wolf, forgive my emotion, but this opens up very raw wounds and, to me, it raises the risks of further attacks that we could have prevented.

SESTAK: And it's why I served in this military, was to defend this nation and bring these perpetrators to justice. Justice.

BLITZER: On that note, we'll leave it.

Excellent debate between two men who were personally involved in 9/11. We remember your involvement well.

Congressman Joe Sestak, Governor George Pataki, thanks very much for coming in.

SESTAK: Thanks for having us, Wolf.

PATAKI: Thank you, Wolf.

SESTAK: Thanks, George.

PATAKI: Congressman, thank you.


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