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Moussaoui case spurs debate on fighting terrorism

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, May 4 (Reuters) The trial of September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui will do little to curb the threat of terrorism or make America safer, the architect of the secret US programme to whisk al Qaeda suspects abroad said today.

As debate begins over the consequences of Moussaoui's conviction and the prosecutors' failure to win the death penalty, other analysts said the outcome may strengthen the hand of hawks who support secret prisons abroad or military tribunals.

Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official who once led the agency's hunt for Osama bin Laden and designed the ''rendition'' program to transfer and imprison suspects overseas, said criminal and military trials have no impact on a global terrorist movement undeterred by the loss of individuals. He called for them to be treated as ordinary prisoners of war.

''It is fooling the American people. This is not a problem that can ever be solved with courts,'' Scheuer told Reuters.

A federal judge formally sentenced Moussaoui to life in prison today. Scheuer said that while he would have preferred the death penalty, no outcome of the trial would bolster the war on terrorism.

''I really think that Americans come away with a feeling of security because the system has worked, but I don't think that's valid at all,'' Scheuer said, adding the verdict just put one more militant behind bars.

Brian Walsh, a legal expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, said the verdict may lead to calls for alternative approaches to criminal courts for trying suspects.

''Depending on how it (the Moussaoui verdict) is played, and by those who are opinion makers, there could be political pressure put on government officials to say that this was a negative result,'' he said.

However the outcome should be seen as an effective one for the government, ''I think the lesson of this trial should be that in the proper circumstances, a trial like this is the right tool.'' NO CURE-ALL Military courts are no cure-all for government prosecutors, said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, which filed a brief arguing against the death penalty in the Moussaoui case if some testimony is withheld.

''Those military commissions are subject to many unresolved legal challenges,'' Martin said. ''If they were to sentence someone to death, there'd be greater legal challenges available to that verdict than to a jury verdict in a criminal trial.'' Scheuer, a vocal opponent of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies, says indefinite secret detentions would be wrong too. He advocated a far broader campaign to root out militant Islam, including a rethink of how the United States handles prisoners in its war on terrorism.

The United States has faced repeated allegations of rights abuses and torture at its terrorist detention facilities, but authorities deny this and say the centers have proven a vital means of keeping the most dangerous militants locked up while gaining critical information from them to foil terror plots.

''The right answer is to treat these people like prisoners of war. We really shoot ourselves in the foot by this sort of judicial proceeding, or by holding these people overseas ...

and get yelled at about not giving these people due process'' Scheuer said.

''If they were prisoners of war, they would sit in the little stockades like the Germans and the Japanese (in World War Two) and the UN could bring them cookies, they could write letters to their mom, all of that stuff. And they would be put on ice until we decide this war is over,'' he said.

Reuters VJ VP0220

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