MANHATTAN (CN) – At odds with President Donald Trump’s concession that the accused perpetrator of New York City’s deadly truck attack will not be tried at Guantanamo Bay, Attorney General Jeff Sessions boasted Thursday that the creaky war court remains open for business.
“Terrorists should know: this administration will use all lawful tools at our disposal, including prosecution in Article III courts and at Guantanamo Bay,” Sessions told a roomful of a law enforcement officials this morning.
“If anyone has any doubt about that, they can ask the more than 500 criminals whom the Department of Justice has convicted of terrorism-related offenses since 9/11,” he added. “And they can ask the dozens of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay.”
Among those enemy combatants are five men accused of plotting the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
With no trial date in sight for them, however, Trump walked back an earlier suggestion that the military commissions there could bring 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov to justice on this week’s carnage.
“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system,” Trump tweeted this morning.
“There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed,” he added later. “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”
Of the 61 people on federal death row, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the only one convicted of terrorism offenses. New York has had an effective moratorium on the death penalty for state crimes dating back to 2004, but there has been no execution here since 1963.
Trump’s tweets came about an hour before Sessions delivered prepared remarks this morning in New York at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, less than a mile from the West Side Highway bike path where eight were killed on Tuesday.
Federal pubic defender David Patton, who is representing Saipov against federal terrorism charges, has not responded to a request for comment.
Authorities say Saipov carried out his attack Tuesday with a flatbed truck rented from Home Depot. After crashing into a school bus, Saipov allegedly emerged from the truck brandishing two fake guns and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” an Arabic phrase meaning God is great.
Sessions paid tribute this morning to Ryan Nash, the police officer who has been credited with disarming Saipov on Tuesday with a shot to the abdomen.
“[Nash] is rightly regarded as a hero today — not just in New York, but across America,” Sessions said. “He symbolizes the best of the best.”
Refusing to take questions from the press, Sessions this morning laid out a hardline prescription for his theme of defending national security — a plan of action conspicuously withheld a month earlier when 58 people were killed in Las Vegas, without reference to the Islamic State group, at what became the country’s deadliest mass shooting.
Sessions today called for boosting some of the most controversial facets from the national-security repertoire of the George W. Bush administration, programs that civil libertarians call illegality.
Other than loading up Guantanamo, whose prison camps former President Barack Obama failed to close, Sessions pushed for broad restrictions on immigration and what he described as the ability to “aggressively surveil noncitizen terrorists overseas.”
“The law that authorizes us to do this,” he noted, calling on Congress to reauthorize section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act once it expires in 59 days.
Sessions denied charges by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that the statute allows “backdoor” searches of U.S. citizens.
“I want to be clear about this: section 702 does not permit the targeting of any American anywhere, or even a foreigner who is likely in the United States,” Sessions said. “Congress needs to make sure that well-intentioned but misinformed amendments don’t make it impossible to use the data we already have.”
The White House meanwhile has backed down on earlier tweets by Trump that cast political blame on Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., for Tuesday’s attack.
Referencing a “diversity visa lottery program” that Schumer backed in 1990, Trump quoted a guest from a Fox News program as saying Schumer was “helping to import Europes (sic) problems.”
Officials at Homeland Security Department have confirmed that Saipov immigrated under the diversity lottery program in 2010, but his country of origin, Uzbekistan, is actually in Asia.
Schumer meanwhile tried to eliminate the diversity lottery program four years ago, according to reports by several senators. The program provides some 50,000 visas every year to residents of countries with low rates of U.S. immigration, provided that the applicants have either a high school diploma or certain work experience.
President George H.W. Bush signed the bipartisan immigration bill that created the program, which Attorney General recommended replacing Thursday the system with a merit-based model like those used in Canada and Australia.
Sessions also griped about the many federal court setbacks that the Justice Department has endured in trying to deny admission into the United States by Syrian refugees and residents of other various countries.
“The so-called ‘travel ban,’” Sessions said.
Veering off script, the remark was one of several ad-lib and observations that peppered Thursday’s speech.
“I look forward to a victory in the Supreme Court,” Sessions predicted.
Notwithstanding Trump’s new push to end the diversity visa program, however, no version of the travel ban would have prevented the immigration of Saipov, whom the United States granted lawful permanent resident status. Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, is not currently a travel ban-listed country.
As Sessions delivered his remarks Thursday, a federal judge some 225 miles south in Washington heard arguments this morning about one of the long-term Guantanamo detainees whose trial Saipov is on track to far outpace.
Accused of masterminding the 2000 bombing of a U.S. warship off the coast of Yemen, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri’s prosecution has been waylaid by the simultaneous resignations of the Marine general in charge of legal defense together with Nashiri’s entire legal team.
The attorneys say that government spying on their communications with Nashiri has made it impossible for them to proceed, but a military judge found Brig. Gen. John Baker in contempt of court Wednesday for the refusing to represent Nashiri under those conditions.
U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth is presiding over Thursday’s hearing in Washington.
Despite his defense of Guantanamo, which he previously called a “very fine place,” Sessions did not cite examples of successful cases there.