Yale Law School professor Ruth Wedgwood took two stances Monday night that would surprise many people. She told a small audience in the Law School auditorium that she is a “New York liberal,” but also supports President George W. Bush’s proposal to use military tribunals in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
Wedgwood’s lecture was part of the “Democracy, Security and Justice” series the University began after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Wedgwood said the special military tribunals authorized by Bush on Nov. 13 are the best possible option in a world where Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network have turned U.S. “virtues into vulnerabilities.”
She compared the military tribunals to three other potential options — an ad hoc international tribunal, a permanent international criminal tribunal, or U.S. federal courts.
With international tribunals, each individual scenario brings troubling complications, Wedgwood said. For instance, in the current situation, a wide variety of countries would have to be represented in order to ensure a fair trial. But some governments may not allow their judges to serve, and some Muslim judges may refuse to sit with Israeli colleagues.
Another problem noted by Wedgwood is that these tribunals have not yet shown the efficiency to handle large numbers of the accused. Although Wedgwood says she is a “big fan” of the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, she pointed out that the tribunal has only processed 21 cases to date.
Wedgwood said setting up a permanent international criminal tribunal is subject to similar problems.
The last option of trying the accused in federal courts is particularly problematic for Wedgwood. She believes that in most cases the openness of federal courts is not appropriate during a continuous war. During the federal trial of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, potentially harmful information was revealed, Wedgwood said.
“There was testimony about the stability of the buildings and that a [757 jet] could destroy one of them. There was also revelations about the al Qaeda training manual, basically exposing the intelligence knowledge of the U.S.,” Wedgwood said. “I do not claim any causality between the revealed information and the recent attacks. Nonetheless, such information can be potentially harmful.”
History professor John Gaddis commented that Wedgwood’s support of military tribunals was especially interesting given the fierce opposition of many conservative Republicans.
“It is interesting to see [Wedgwood] going in one direction and Bill Safire in the other in one day,” Gaddis said, pointing to a Monday column by the conservative New York Times writer, who opposes the military tribunals.
An audience member pointed out that using military tribunals might prevent European countries from extraditing al Qaeda members — specifically pointing to Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon, who has expressed skepticism about turning over suspects to a military tribunal.
Wedgwood responded by saying that there is no way to be certain how European nations will respond, and added that such military tribunals are not out of the ordinary during wartime.
Ian Cornwall ’02 said he was convinced by Wedgwood’s pragmatic approach to trying suspects.
“For someone with little knowledge of international law, professor Wedgwood made that seem beside the point — our legal options appear to be limited by the logistics and politics of the situation. A U.S. military commission seems to be the best we can do.”