Maddow Guest Isikoff: 'It Was Only Learned' Through Prosecution That al-Marri is Terrorist

May 5th, 2009 1:14 PM

Newsweek investigative reporter and MSNBC contributor Michael Isikoff is willing to give credit where due to the Bush administration, provided it comes with a caveat.

Isikoff appeared on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC cable show last Thursday to discuss al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali al-Marri pleading guilty in federal court to terrorism charges.

While conceding this could be interpreted as Bush being "vindicated" for deeming al-Marri an enemy combatant, Isikoff was more inclined to see evidence of the efficacy of prosecuting terrorists --

MADDOW: So Ali al-Marri is the man whose case ended in a guilty plea today and it seems like what's maybe most remarkable about the plea is that it happened in a normal, run-of-the-mill court, just like we used to use. Can you remind us how he ended up in court, how we got here with him?

ISIKOFF: Exactly. Score one for the criminal justice system might be the sort of headline on this one. Ali al-Marri was picked up after 9/11 and was widely suspected of being a sleeper al Qaeda agent who was dispatched to the United States, had come here on Sept. 10, 2001, and was believed to be plotting further, sort of, second wave of attacks after 9/11.

But rather than charging him in a criminal court, the Bush administration designated him an enemy combatant, stripped him of all his constitutional rights, he was legally in the United States with a green card, he was enrolled at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and threw him in a military brig, denied him access to a lawyer, subjected him to enhanced interrogation techniques, he wasn't waterboarded but there were aggressive techniques used, and was, wasn't charged with any crime.

So this was a part of a pattern that was emerging post-9/11. Jose Padilla, who was a US citizen, was the, had been previously designated enemy combatant, essentially made an unperson, and this prompted a huge constitutional debate and contest as to whether or not a president can simply unilaterally strip somebody of his rights.

This was teed up to go to the Supreme Court this January when Barack Obama took office and the Obama administration terminated the Supreme Court case by taking him out of military brig, charging him with two counts of terrorism charges in Peoria, and today, amazingly, he pled guilty to some pretty significant set of facts which we can get to in a moment.

But the bottom line is, in less than two months we've learned the truth about Ali al-Marri, which is that he was in fact an al Qaeda sleeper agent, something that for the previous five and a half years the US government had been unable to learn.

MADDOW: And we learned it through the normal criminal justice system without modification, thanks to 9/11.


MADDOW: In terms of what he confessed to, or what he pled to, we know that he said he was in regular contact with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the supposed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I wonder, Mike, if that means that al-Marri could be used as a witness against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ever goes on trial?

ISIKOFF: Right, exactly. That may be the most significant part of this. First of all, I should say that the facts here are pretty significant and people are going to find them hair-raising. This guy was, attended an Afghan training camp, met Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was dispatched by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the United States with specific instructions to get here by Sept. 10. He wasn't told why, he was just sort, get in the country by Sept. 10. He was given $10,000 by one of the financiers of the 9/11 attacks, and then upon getting here was in communication with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, had done research about cynanide gases for potential cyanide gas attack in the United States.

So this guy was in fact a dangerous dude that a lot of law enforcement and intelligence officials thought he was all along. In that sense the Bush administration could argue, we've been vindicated here. But the fact is it was only learned through the criminal justice system.

This is known among journalists as "burying the lead" (or "lede" for traditionalists).

Isikoff contends it was "only learned through the criminal justice system" that al-Marri was a "dangerous dude" intent on mass murder. This is like claiming it was "only learned" through O.J. Simpson's acquittal in the criminal case against him that Simpson did not murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

What was actually "learned" at the end of Simpson's criminal trial was that jurors did not believe prosecutors proved him guilty. Jurors in the civil trial that followed came to a different conclusion.

With al-Marri, it wasn't "only learned" through prosecution that he was an al Qaeda sleeper agent -- this was discovered by those who investigated al-Marri after he was taken into custody, and formed the basis of Bush accurately categorizing al-Marri as an enemy combatant.

The legal proceedings against al-Marri did not provide revelation of his role in the jihad, but confirmation from another source. Hence the end of his trial before it even began. 

Anyone else wondering if "enhanced interrogation techniques" (caterpillars in al-Marri's cell?) yielded evidence held over him as trial date approached? If so, rest assured you won't learn of it from MSNBC.