On September 11th, Americans found their nation under attack. Terrorists hijacked civilian airliners, turned them into missiles, and used them to kill thousands of innocent Americans–men, women and children–as well as people from dozens of nations.
Today, three months after the attack, the ruins of the World Trade Towers are still burning–and bodies are still being pulled from the wreckage. Over the weekend, the remains of twenty more were recovered–five firefighters, two policemen, and a group that had been trapped in a stairwell as they tried to escape the collapsing tower. Their families will now be able to bury them. But many hundreds of families who lost loved ones–mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters– still have not been able to bury their dead… and possibly never will.
It is still difficult to fathom the enormity of what happened on September 11th. As time passes, and the fires finally burn out, Americans will eventually recover from the shock and horror of what befell our nation that day.
But those who are responsible for our national defense must not lose sight of the fact that these are not normal times. We have been attacked. We are at war. And we must take the steps necessary to defend our people, and protect them from further harm.
The September 11th attacks were acts of war. The people who planned and carried out these attacks are not common criminals–they are foreign aggressors, vicious enemies whose goal was, and remains, to kill as many innocent Americans as possible.
And let there be no doubt: they will strike again, unless we are able to stop them.
We have no greater responsibility as a nation, than to stop these terrorists–to find them, root them out, and prevent them from murdering more of our citizens.
To accomplish that objective, the President is marshalling every tool at his disposal–military, diplomatic, financial, economic. He is working to freeze the assets of terrorist leaders and organizations that sponsor and finance terror. He is working with foreign governments to shut down the terrorist networks that operate in dozens of countries across the world. And he has sent brave Americans to Afghanistan–courageous soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, who at this moment are risking their lives to stop the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban that seek to kill our people.
This is not a law enforcement action. It is war. We seek to defeat or destroy our terrorist enemies, so that they cannot harm Americans. When coalition forces storm a Taliban compound or an al-Qaeda safe house, they cannot first ask for a search warrant. When they confront Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters in the caves and shadows where they hide, they are in combat. Their objective is to stop the terrorists and prevent them from continuing to threaten our country.
The U.S. military is doing this in Afghanistan–and they are doing it extremely well. But the terrorists who threaten us are not only in Afghanistan. They operate in dozens of countries–including the United States. They are, and remain, unlawful belligerents, adversaries who attacked our nation in contravention of the rules of war. And the President has made it clear that we will hunt them down wherever they hide.
When enemy forces are captured, wherever they are captured, they must then be dealt with. There are a number of tools at the country’s disposal for doing so. One of those tools is the establishment of military war crimes commissions.
The president, as commander-in-chief, has issued a military order that would permit individual non-U.S. citizens to be tried by military commission. As yet, he has not designated anyone to be tried by such a commission. He may do so; he may not.
To prepare for the possibility that he may do so, the Department of Defense is developing appropriate procedures for such commissions.
We are in the process of developing these procedures. We are consulting a variety of individuals and experts, in and out of government, to discuss how such commissions should operate, and how they have operated in the past. We are working to establish rules of procedure that will ensure, in the event the President decides to designate a non-U.S. citizen to be tried by a military commission, that it is handled in a measured, balanced, thoughtful way that reflects our country’s values.
Military commissions have been used in times of war since the Founding of this nation. George Washington used them during the Revolutionary War; They were used during the Civil War; President Franklin Roosevelt used them during World War II.
During and following World War II, we didn’t bring German and Japanese war criminals to the U.S. for trial in civilian courts. We tried them by military commissions. In Germany, we prosecuted 1,672 individuals for war crimes before U.S. military commissions. Convictions were obtained in 1,416 cases. In Japan, we tried 996 suspected war criminals before military commissions–of which 856 were convicted. These conviction rates are not out of line with normal, non-military commission outcomes–indeed, they are lower than the felony conviction rate in the U.S. federal courts last year.
When eight Nazi saboteurs landed on our coast in 1942, with the intention of destroying American industrial facilities, they were tried by military commissions.
Indeed in that case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of military commissions. In Ex parte Quirin, the Court ruled unanimously–in an 8-0 decision–that the trial of the Nazi saboteurs by a military commission, without a jury, was indeed constitutional, declaring “unlawful combatants