The decision to prosecute five people accused of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in federal court in New York drew support Friday from US Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in comments at a one-hour discussion at Marquette University Law School.
“That’s the way to go,” said Feingold, who has been highly critical of the long confinement, without trial, of the suspects at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
At the same time, US Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. announced that several other suspected terrorists will be tried in military courts. That group includes Ad Al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who allegedly planned another major attack, the bombing of the Navy destroyer Cole in 2000 in Yemen.
The decisions to go the two different routes in the cases will provide an interesting opportunity to compare civil and military handling of cases of this kind, Feingold told Mike Gousha, who moderated the session and who is a distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the Law School.
Feingold said bringing the Sept. 11 suspects, including Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, who has claimed he masterminded the attacks, into civil courts and allowing the justice system to proceed to a verdict on their cases is the appropriate course, said Feingold, a member of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. “This advances not only our legal system, but our credibility in the world,” he said.
Feingold said that he is an opponent of the death penalty, but, “If there is a place where the death penalty should be administered, it is probably this case.” The bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and lethal crash of a commercial flight in Pennsylvania killed almost 3,000 people.
Feingold praised President Barack Obama for the way he is handling decisions about the future of military involvement in Afghanistan. Feingold said Obama was right to take his time and to consider all options, including a plan for phased withdrawal that Feingold has advocated. Several months ago, Feingold became the first senator to back such a plan. But he said Obama appears to be taking the possibility seriously.
“Why is it we are continuing this huge land war in Afghanistan?” he asked. “It doesn’t add up.” He said al-Qaeda has moved its bases out of Afghanistan and he does not think an end to American military involvement would mean a return of al-Qaeda power in the country.
Addressing other subjects, Feingold said:
- He hopes a health care plan can be passed by Congress by the end of January, but it is “impossible” that action will be completed this year. He emphasized his support for a “public option” in a health care plan, a system in which a government-run plan would provide insurance to some people. He said, “It would be very hard for me” to support a bill that did not include such an option.
- If Chief Justice John Roberts comes down strongly in favor of overturning a 1990 decision (Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce), “it will be one of the greatest lawless acts by a chief justice in the past 100 years.” A decision is expected soon in a case (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that has become a broad review by the court of federal election laws, including the Austin decision, in which the court ruled 6-3 that it was constitutional to prevent corporations from spending their own money on political campaigns. Feingold said that during confirmation hearings in 2005, Roberts said he would be an umpire calling balls and strikes and would not make law himself. Feingold voted to confirm Roberts, drawing the ire of many liberals. Asked after his talk whether he would regret supporting Roberts if Roberts votes to overturn Austin, Feingold said such a step might give him “a moment of significant regret.” But he said that would depend not only how Roberts votes, but what he writes in support of his vote.
- A two-year program of tax credits to companies who create jobs or increase employees’ hours could create several million jobs and help the economy nationwide. Feingold said he saw a major part of his role in dealing with economic issues as advocating for such a plan.
- Immigration reform is an urgent issue, but he does not see federal action coming until “maybe late next year.”
- Development of a five- to seven-year plan to bring down the federal deficit is both responsible and necessary for economic recovery. Feingold said the deficit “is almost an obsession of mine in the Senate,” and he sometimes finds himself voting with the most conservative Republicans because of the need to exercise more restraint on federal spending.
Feingold ducked commenting on one major Wisconsin issue. Asked whether he had a position on a proposed transfer of power over Milwaukee Public Schools to Milwaukee’s mayor, he said that it isn’t a federal issue and he isn’t going to get involved.
He also said he wasn’t making an endorsement in a potential Democratic primary for governor in 2010, but “I think the world of Tom” Barrett. Milwaukee’s mayor is expected to announce whether he is running for governor in the next several days. “I would have no hesitation supporting Mayor Barrett for any office he wants to run for, other than running against me in a primary,” Feingold said.
Feingold’s visit to the Law School was part of the “On the Issues” series led by Gousha. About 150 people attended the session.