The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, accused Barack Obama of putting his desire to close Guantánamo ahead of the country's security needs. The decision denied the intelligence community the opportunity to interrogate Suleiman Abu Ghaith to obtain information about possible harm to the US, McConnell claimed.
But the White House spokesman Josh Earnest brushed aside McConnell's claim. "With all due respect, that's not the assessment of the intelligence community," Earnest said.
The row came as Abu Ghaith appeared in a US federal court on Friday to plead not guilty to a charge of conspiring to kill Americans. During a 15-minute arraignment hearing at the southern district court in lower Manhattan, close to where the September 11 attacks took place in 2001, Abu Ghaith spoke only to confirm that he understood his rights.
In a statement on Friday, McConnell said: "The decision of the president to import Suleiman Abu Ghaith into the United States solely for civilian prosecution makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantánamo Bay despite the circumstances.
"At Guantánamo, he could be held as a detainee and fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers."
McConnell added: "From public reports it is clear that Abu Ghaith possesses valuable knowledge of al-Qaida's activities within Iran. Abu Ghaith has sworn to kill Americans, and he likely possesses information that could prevent harm to America and its allies. He is an enemy combatant and should be held in military custody."
Other Republicans, including senators Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, expressed similar sentiments to McConnell. Graham and Ayotte put out a joint statement on Thursday saying they were disturbed by the decision to try him in New York rather than Guantánamo and claimed it made the country less safe.
Asked about McConnell's statement, Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary, said the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security agreed that Abu Ghaith be tried in a civilian court.
These courts "have shown that there are, in many ways, a more efficient way for us to deliver justice to those who seek to harm the United States of America. That is the consensus view of the president's national security team and of agencies all across the federal government," he said.
Earnest, speaking at the White House daily briefing, added: "The crimes he has committed are terrible. From at least May 2001 up to and around 2002 Abu Ghaith served alongside Osama bin Laden … This is somebody who is going to be held accountable for his crimes and it will be done in accordance with the laws and values of this country."
The White House-Republican clash echoes one in 2009 over the Obama administration's decision to try the alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. The administration, faced with an outcry and warnings that it would pose a security threat to the city, backed off and opted instead for Guantánamo.
Obama, unable to fulfill a 2008 election pledge to close Guantánamo within a year of becoming president, has gradually been reducing the number of prisoners held at the Cuban detention centre.
In court on Friday, US district judge Lewis Kaplan said that Abu Ghaith faces accusations that "in or about May 2001 to 2002 you conspired with others to kill US nationals".
Ghaith is accused of being summoned by Bin Laden on the evening of 9/11 and asked to assist in the al-Qaida chief's campaign.
The following morning, Abu Ghaith, along with Bin Laden and then al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video in which he warned the US that "a great army is gathering against you" and calling on "the nation of Islam" to fight "the Jews, the Christians and the Americans".
He later gave a speech in which he warned Muslims "not to board any aircraft and not to live in high rises". Friday's court session took place on the ninth floor of a building just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, where nearly 3,000 people died in the worst terrorist atrocity to have been carried out on US soil.
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image: © Aaron Logan