A federal judge's ruling last week threw a potential new curveball into the campaign debate over the War on Terror. Democratic appointed Judge James Robertson gave the Pentagon a green light to start the first-ever military-commission trial of a Gitmo detainee this week—that of Salim Hamdan, an alleged Qaeda member who served as Osama bin Laden's driver. (Robertson said that if defense lawyers see the trial as unfair, they can challenge the results later in federal court.) But the ramifications of the ruling go beyond that one case. Pentagon officials say it allows them to proceed with a series of military-commission trials, hearings and new charges that (coincidentally or not) will play out in the middle of the election campaign. Among them are hearings, if not the actual trial, in the conspiracy case involving 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. "We are moving forward," said J. D. Gordon, a spokesman for the Pentagon, noting that the next round of KSM hearings are slated for August and another commission trial, involving Canadian detainee Omar Khadr, is due to begin Oct. 8.
Aside from producing new testimony on Al Qaeda and terror plots, the proceedings could sharpen the debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. While both have said they want to shut down Gitmo, McCain backs the military commissions; Obama voted against the bill that created the panels in 2006. When the Pentagon announced its charges against KSM and five co-conspirators, Obama argued that the men should be tried either in a civilian court or by a military court-martial. But would he call a halt to trials already underway? Spokesman Bill Burton told NEWSWEEK Obama will "review any pending cases and make a judgment about how to go forward based on the best interest of the country." But the established "court systems … are capable of convicting terrorists."