Suspected Embassy Bombing Planner Pleads Not Guilty In Federal Court

The man accused of being an al-Qaeda operative and a key planner of the 1998 Africa embassy bombings pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court. Abu Anas al-Libi was captured about ten days ago by U.S. Special Operating Forces in Tripoli and was held in military custody aboard a Navy ship. Over the weekend he arrived in New York, the jurisdiction where he'd been indicted in the Embassy bombings case. Al-Libi's case raises again the question of what to do with terrorists who are captured: whether to have them stand trial in federal court or hold them at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

One of the nation's most wanted terrorists pleaded not guilty in a New York courtroom today. He is Abu Anas al-Libi, a Libyan tied to the 1998 Africa embassy bombings. He once had a $5 million bounty on his head and now he is facing an indictment that could force him to spend the rest of his life in an American prison. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports the decision to try him in the criminal justice system is controversial.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It may have taken more than a dozen years, but eventually, the U.S. got the man known as Abu Anas al-Libi. U.S. special operating forces snatched al-Libi from a car on the streets of Tripoli, October 5th. Then they took him to a Navy ship for interrogation that lasted a week. California Democrat Adam Schiff is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He says the Obama administration approach, a hybrid of military and criminal justice, seems right.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM SCHIFF: Given his intelligence value, the opportunity first to try to gain that intel makes sense. But ultimately, we want to follow the rule of law and bring these people before a court and show the world that we uphold the rule of law even in these heinous cases.

JOHNSON: Heinous because al-Libi was indicted back in 2000, alongside Osama bin Laden, for his role in plotting Africa embassy bombings that killed 224 people. But many Republicans in Congress say al-Libi has no business being transferred into an American court system they say is meant for civilians. Glenn Sulmasy, a fellow at the Center for National Policy, agrees.

GLENN SULMASY: They've already said Guantanamo is not an appropriate place. But if you put him into the civilian justice system, the mindset is that this is just a criminal. This is just an ordinary criminal. And I think we should be past that at this point, 12 years later, with the continuing threat of warfare.

JOHNSON: Sulmasy has advocated for the creation of a separate system of national security courts to handle cases of al-Qaida operatives who could represent an intelligence gold mine. As for al-Libi, U.S. officials say they stopped interrogating him so soon because he refused to eat, exacerbating medical ailments that include hepatitis C. It's not clear how cooperative al-Libi has been. Now that he has a lawyer, Sulmasy says he could clam up.

SULMASY: You can imagine there's all sorts of warts and hairs associated with a trial in this capacity. And the federal public defenders are already saying that, hey, we should have had a counsel appointed to him as soon as he was arrested, if he was arrested.

JOHNSON: But Congressman Schiff says the military courts have a checkered record when it comes to prosecuting detainees. And as the Obama White House leans towards capturing rather than killing more al-Qaida suspects, the al-Libi model may repeat itself. Here's deputy national security adviser Lisa Monaco in a recent interview with "PBS NewsHour."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV INTERVIEW)

LISA MONACO: Well, I think what it shows is a very clear strategy by the U.S. government to use all the tools, frankly, in our toolbox to disrupt threats, to go after, consistent with the rule of law individuals who pose a threat, to get intelligence. And then, ultimately, to make a decision about what the best disposition is for that individual and to prosecute and hold people accountable, no matter how long it takes.

JOHNSON: Al-Libi, who was declared a threat today by a New York judge, will be held in a high-rise prison in lower Manhattan while he awaits trial. He'll join some well-known inmates there, including Osama bin Laden's son-in-law and a radical Egyptian cleric who uses a prosthesis with a hook after his hands blew off in what he says was an accident. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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