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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Outside Group Attacks Sestak on Terror Trials

The Republican Jewish Coalition says it is spending $1 million in the Pennsylvania Senate race on an ad attacking Democrat Joe Sestak for wanting to hold trials of alleged 9/11 terrorists "in our backyard" in Pennsylvania. But Sestak is not advocating holding terror trials in Pennsylvania. He said he would accept them if they were to happen, because he supports civilian, rather than military, trials for terrorists.

The ad, which began airing on Oct. 20, involves the controversial decision by the Department of Justice to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, in civilian court in New York City rather than in military court. The Justice Department is reconsidering that decision. Meanwhile, Mohammed is being held at Guantanamo Bay awaiting a decision of where and when his trial will take place.

The ad, called "Out of Touch," starts with an image of Mohammed. An announcer comes on to say that Sestak "wanted Khalid Sheikh Mohammed tried in a Pennsylvania courthouse rather than in a military court." It goes on to say, "Tell Joe Sestak we shouldn’t be trying terrorists in our backyard."

It’s true that Mohammed’s case, if tried in a federal court, would follow constitutionally guaranteed trial process rules. Included in that process, under the Sixth Amendment, is the trial location. In Mohammed’s case, that would mean holding his trial in one of the districts where the crime was committed: Manhattan, Northern Virginia or Western Pennsylvania.

Sestak has publicly supported trying Mohammed in a civilian court, but to say he "wanted" the trial in Pennsylvania is a stretch.

The Republican Jewish Coalition uses a Wall Street Journal blog post to support its claim. The ad correctly displays the blog’s headline, but omits Sestak’s actual words in the article.

Wall Street Journal, Feb. 25: Sestak was in the Pentagon when terrorists slammed an airliner into the building. His first choice is to try the alleged plotters in Northern Virginia. Manhattan is his second choice. A trial just blocks from the former site of the Twin Towers “would show the strength of the American judicial system,” he said.

But he would be happy to bring them to Pennsylvania as well. “I would accept them anywhere in America, to be brought here, to be brought to justice, to have the keys thrown away or to have them given the death sentence by a jury of our peers,” he said.

Pennsylvania is Sestak’s third choice. That’s not the same as saying he wants terror trials in Pennsylvania.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and not required to disclose its donors, said it intends to spend more than $1 million on this ad. It’s only the latest attack on Sestak. In addition to various mailers and other ads critical of Sestak, the Republican Jewish Coalition created a website where visitors can find the group’s entire campaign against the Democratic congressman. As we have said, the race is attracting a lot of money from outside interest groups.

David Flaum, a Republican fundraiser and New York developer, is chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition. One of its paid consultants is former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman.

— Joshua Goldman