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Shop Talk: Alberto Gonzales Defends KSM Trial


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our Friday features. And in Faith Matters, we decided, in honor of our fifth anniversary on the air, to ask five faith leaders from around the country to offer some words of encouragement. That's later in the program.

But first, to what has become one of our signature segments over the past five years: the Barbershop. That's where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Normally, we conclude every Friday's show with a shop visit.

But today, we decided to start the show with the guys since we have a special visitor in our Washington, D.C. studio: the former attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, is with us. He served during the administration of George W. Bush. He's also a former White House counsel and a former judge. Judge Gonzales, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ALBERTO GONZALES: It's good to be back in Washington.

MARTIN: Also here in Washington, D.C. with us, freelance journalist Jimi Izrael and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. And from Austin, Mario Loyola of the National Review magazine and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. That's a conservative think tank that looks at the role of federal policies on the states among other things. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey.

MARIO LOYOLA: Great to be with you.

GONZALES: We're good.

IZRAEL: Judge Alberto Gonzales. Thanks so much for coming in. It's great to have you.

GONZALES: Thank you so much.

IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get things started. This Saturday, the court is in session - and I'm talking about the military tribunal court in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At the center of the trial, the big bad KSM, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He is the self-proclaimed mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks, including 9/11 and the murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, this is the second time Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be arraigned. The Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to move the case to federal court in New York in 2009. But tomorrow, he and four other alleged terrorists are going to face trial for crimes that carry the death penalty if they're convicted, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks for that, Michel. There's a lot of debate about whether military tribunals can deliver justice. Also, part of the criticism is that KSM was waterboarded and subjected to other questionable interrogation methods. So, some people argue that the case has been tainted from the get-go. Judge Alberto Gonzales, will there always be questions about whether this trial is fair?

GONZALES: Well, thank you for starting me off on a very easy topic.


IZRAEL: Welcome to the Barbershop.

GONZALES: Listen, I think that the government has worked extremely hard to put in place a system that is fair. It's a system that the Congress and the president of the United States have signed off on in terms of being fair. And, listen, I think that at the end of the day, once these things start rolling that people will get more comfortable with military commissions and will understand that they are, in fact, a legitimate means to bring people to justice.

IZRAEL: OK. Mario Loyola, Super Mario, you worked on detainee policy during the Bush administration when you were at the Pentagon. What do you think?

LOYOLA: Well, the problem that we're facing is that this is a new kind of war. We have a scheme that gives privileges to prisoners of war, and then we have a different scheme that gives privileges to defendants in a criminal justice context. But because the terrorists, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, are both criminals and combatants, they're in a position to accumulate the privileges of both.

It is absolutely perverse, for example, in my opinion, to send Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to civilian court in New York while trying the Cole bombers in a military commission. And, you know, the Attorney General Holder's explanation of this a couple of years back that it's because, well, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed attacked civilians; therefore, he should be in civilian court.

And the Cole bombers attacked a military target; therefore, they should be in a military court, you know, is unbelievable. That's a shocking explanation, because what's that doing is setting up a huge incentive for terrorists to attack civilians instead of military targets.

MARTIN: Arsalan.

IZRAEL: Arsalan.

IFTIKHAR: Well, as the only lefty lawyer here on the Barbershop, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with my colleagues here. I think there are many, many things in place here. I think, first of all, we have to understand that Attorney General Eric Holder has said that we, in the United States, have successfully prosecuted over 300 terrorism suspects in our Article 3 civilian courts, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.

Obviously, Timothy McVeigh, the people who attacked the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. And so, to think that we do not have the legal justice system in place here, I think, is a political red herring. And, you know, as you mentioned, Michel, President Obama tried to move the trial of KSM to Manhattan in 2009 and essentially the Republican majority in Congress passed legislation that would block any funding for him to allow to do that.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, the president wasn't bowing to political reality; he was bowing to legislative reality, which is that the Congress cut off the funding and said that you just can't do it. And I just want to play - just to remind people that this was a priority of the administration. Here's a clip of President Obama talking about this. This is one of the first orders he issued when he took office.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In order to affect the appropriate disposition of individuals currently detained by the Department of Defense at Guantanamo, and promptly to close the detention facility at Guantanamo consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interest of justice, I hereby order.

MARTIN: Arsalan, just what about the original question on the table, though, was: Will this trial have legitimacy?

IFTIKHAR: I don't think so.

MARTIN: You don't?

LOYOLA: Can I jump in for a second?

MARTIN: Yeah, briefly.

LOYOLA: I want to respond to something.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

LOYOLA: You know, the criminal trials of, for example, the World Trade Center bombers in the 1990s were not successful because, among other things, information came out and was released to the public in those trials that told Osama bin Laden something he didn't know, which is that we, our intelligence services, understood the hierarchy of al-Qaida and understood what its top leadership was and that we were tracking them on cell phones. So, they stopped using cell phones. And that put the nation in very grave danger.

MARTIN: So the question, Mario, is do you feel that this procedure will have legitimacy?

LOYOLA: Of course. I mean, it's a procedure of very long standing. We've had it since the very beginning of the republic. And all countries, all developed nations, have a system for military justice and for the treatment of war crimes. I mean, these people commit their crimes notoriously. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed laughs about having killed 3,000 people. This is not a situation in which you have a criminal defendant that we have to protect from the state because he might be innocent.

MARTIN: Judge Gonzales, I wanted to give you a kind of a final word, as you remember very well the argument of whether Guantanamo should be open, should it stay open. It's now open. Do you think that there's still a need for it? I mean...


MARTIN: ...five years from now, will we still be having this conversation?

GONZALES: I can't predict that. But Guantanamo was established because there was a need - a place to put dangerous terrorists captured in the war on terror. That need continues today. That's the only reason Guantanamo exists today. And as to whether or not it'll continue to exist five years from now, that remains to be seen. Hopefully not. You know, President Bush didn't want Guantanamo to continue. He wanted it closed as quickly as possible, but it remained open because of the need.

MARTIN: Hmm. I think most people forget that, that President Bush did not want it to remain open.

GONZALES: He also was very, very - I can't tell you the number of times I'd walk into the Oval Office and he would ask me, when are we going to begin military commissions. He was very frustrated by the fact that we could not stand these up because he did want to bring them to justice. He felt that it would be good. And it's been a long time coming, but I'm glad to see this commission stood up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined this week by the former attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. Also with us, civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar, columnist Mario Loyola, and freelance journalist Jimi Izrael. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK. Well, we're moving to presidential politics and the ruffling of some feathers in Mitt Romney's campaign. Foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell resigned from the GOP candidate's team less than a month after he was hired.

MARTIN: Now, I'm puzzled by this because the reporting says that he was pushed out by culturally conservative Republicans because he's an openly gay man. And Mr. Romney's team denies that accusation. But then, there are like, what, some 800 Twitter posts that he did delete, where he makes comments about Newt Gingrich's weight, Callista Gingrich's hair, journalist Rachel Maddow's looks. I'm just sort of puzzled by this.

IZRAEL: I'm not so puzzled.


IZRAEL: Just...

MARTIN: I guess I'm just saying, well, do you get a pass on making rude comments about peoples' appearance because you're gay? I'm just - so do you see my point?

IZRAEL: I do see your point. That's why I'm not so puzzled. I mean, look, it's like when you're - no disrespect to anybody's politics - but when you're running on fumes like Mitt Romney is, you know, you try to cut off the dead wood. And to me he was always a political liability. He says whatever he wants to say and you can't have a guy like that on your team. You just can't. You know, not if you're running for president. Maybe if you're trying to become, you know, kickball captain but you can't just have...

MARTIN: But they hired him.

IZRAEL: I know. I know, but...

MARTIN: He didn't just show up and just refuse to leave. I mean...

IZRAEL: Well, somebody didn't do the diligence, obviously, because they didn't know this guy was a loose cannon. You don't hire Rodney Dangerfield to do your press. You know, just FYI.

MARTIN: I don't know. Arsalan, you live on Twitter.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know, the funny thing is that Bryan Fischer and other right wing activists around the country basically, you know, patted themselves on the back for getting Mr. Grenell kicked out. And even though I probably don't agree with any of Mr. Grenell's foreign policy initiatives, I am quite concerned that, you know, you have this sort of knee-jerk pandering to, you know, the right wing fringe, sometimes.

And, you know, hopefully - we are hoping, you know, now with Mitt Romney as the presumptive Republican nominee that he would be moving more towards the center to try to appeal to the greatest cross-section of American society.

MARTIN: So, sexist tweets OK?

IFTIKHAR: No. I'm not saying that they're OK, but that was not the - I mean, this is a guy who's dealing in foreign policy. And if he's going off saying things outside of his portfolio that are going rogue, then I can understand that. But, again, you know, these are right wing activists who are taking credit for the fact that they got a gay man out of the Romney presidential campaign.

MARTIN: So, if he made racist tweets, that would be OK as long as...

IFTIKHAR: No. I think that if...

MARTIN: ...he stuck to his foreign policy portfolio? I'm sorry. I...

IFTIKHAR: No. But...

IZRAEL: I mean, what I said was he's a loose cannon. Period.


IZRAEL: He's a loose cannon. Period. And he shouldn't ever have got the gig.

LOYOLA: Listen. Hold on a second.

MARTIN: Mario, go ahead.

LOYOLA: I mean, there's - yeah. I mean, there's one - you know, unfortunately, we're entering the new era in which there will be no such thing as private communications for anybody who's facing a potential position in the administration or a campaign like this.

I think that the question of his sexual orientation was completely irrelevant to this entire case. And maybe on the fringe, they're making a big deal out of it. but the reason why he had to resign was clearly because of the inappropriateness of the Twitter feed.

But this is a person, by the way - and I've had occasion to deal with him when he was a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for several years and I was working on different National Review stories. For example, he was very discreet, very professional, very sophisticated and certainly not a loose cannon in his professional behavior. That's why John Bolton had confidence in him. That's why the campaign had confidence in him. And, you know, Twitter feeds Twitter. What are we going to do about Twitter?


MARTIN: Do you tweet? Judge, do you tweet?

GONZALES: I do not.


GONZALES: My wife does for me. So, if you get a tweet from me, it's really from my wife.


MARTIN: Well, what do you think?

GONZALES: Listen. From my perspective, I think the campaign is entitled to have who they want on the campaign and who they don't want on the campaign, quite frank, and whatever reason as far as I'm concerned. The campaign has one mission and that is to get the nominee elected.

What I have a problem with is that there probably wasn't the appropriate vetting done on this individual. If, in fact, this person was, in fact, someone that was a loose cannon or if, in fact, this person was removed because of the blow-back from conservatives, that's something that the campaign should have anticipated, should have vetted out before this person was hired, as far as I'm concerned.

IZRAEL: So, can we go on record? The judge agreed with me.


MARTIN: I'm going to have go back over the transcript and make sure.

IFTIKHAR: Brush your shoulder off, brother.

IZRAEL: I rule.

IFTIKHAR: Brush your shoulder off.


MARTIN: We need to take a short break. And when we come back, we will have more of the Barbershop with our regular guests, Arsalan Iftikhar, Jimi Izrael and Mario Loyola and our special guest, former attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. Please stay with us.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.