WASHINGTON — The chief judge of the federal court in Washington told lawyers Thursday that domestic street gangs are more deadly than some Guantanamo Bay detainees who could face trial in U.S. courts.
Judge Royce Lamberth was speaking at an American Bar Association breakfast about Attorney General Eric Holder's recent decision to put the reputed Sept. 11 mastermind and four accused henchmen on trial in New York federal court.
Lamberth didn't refer specifically to those five in his comments, but rejected the suggestion made by some critics of Holder's decision that U.S. courts cannot secure defendants like terror suspects held at Guantanamo.
"The gangs are more murderous, I think, than some of these people at Guantanamo," Lamberth said. "They've certainly killed their share of witnesses here."
Lamberth presided over a 2004 trial in which six members of a gang called Murder Inc. were accused of killing at least 31 people, including witnesses to the gang's crimes. It was one of the city's longest and most tightly guarded trials. The judge and jury were protected by bulletproof glass.
President Barack Obama has ordered the federal government to acquire an underused state prison in rural Illinois to be the new home for a limited number of terror suspects now held at Guantanamo. The federal government will transform the site into a prison that exceeds supermax standards, officials said this week.
Lamberth said he does not want to get into a political debate about whether detainees should be tried in military commissions or civilian courts, but he insisted the court system can handle whatever cases it gets.
"Federal courts are very capable of doing this," Lamberth said.
Some critics of Holder's decision argue that such trials will expose national security secrets to enemy terrorists. But Lamberth argued a trial judge can sort through the classified information in secret before anything is aired in a public courtroom.
Stewart Baker, a former Bush administration homeland security official who attended Lamberth's speech, said afterward he was not convinced on that point.
Such a trial "creates this massive hydraulic pressure to declassify information," said Baker. "We can always do something. Whether you can really protect national security fully is really an open question."
Lamberth said he "bristled" when he heard Holder predict that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four others will be convicted, and bristled again when defense lawyers spoke publicly about the case becoming a "show trial."
The judge suggested a gag order could be imposed on all the lawyers in any such case to keep the proceedings from getting out of hand.
He also said that it is possible defendants will use the trial to launch anti-American invective, but said: "It's a free country. I don't think that that can be prevented and I think families have to understand that in a free country those things can happen."