NBC's Pete Williams reports on Sulaiman Abu Ghaith's not guilty plea to charges of plotting to kill Americans in New York federal court.
A son-in-law of Osama bin Laden who served as an al-Qaida spokesman and warned Americans after Sept. 11 that “the storm shall not stop” pleaded not guilty Friday in a civilian court to plotting to kill Americans.
Handcuffed and in a blue prison suit, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith wore earphones to listen to a live translation of the hearing in a heavily guarded federal courtroom in Lower Manhattan, walking distance from the World Trade Center site.
He entered the plea through a court-appointed lawyer and was ordered to return to court April 8. Abu Ghaith himself spoke only twice, answering “Yes” when he was asked whether he understood the charge and whether he wanted representation.
Prosecutors disclosed that Abu Ghaith was captured Feb. 28 overseas and flown to New York the following day. They said he had yielded enough information after his capture to fill 22 pages. They did not give details of what he said.
Courtroom sketch of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith in New York federal court.
An indictment unsealed Thursday accuses Abu Ghaith of taking part in al-Qaida plots to kill Americans, both before and after the 2001 terror attacks. It describes him as such a close confidant that bin Laden summoned him for help on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001.
Abu Ghaith gave a speech after Sept. 11 and warned Americans that “the storm shall not stop, especially the airplanes storm” and suggested that Muslims and opponents of the United States should not fly or live in high rises.
Jordanian sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC News that Abu Ghaith was captured by Turkish officials in Ankara, where a court ruled that he had entered the country with a fake passport.
The Turkish government ordered him deported to Kuwait, where he was born, but arranged for him to travel through Jordan, where he was taken into custody by American law enforcement, the sources said.
Rep. Peter King of New York, a Republican who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, announced the capture Thursday and credited the FBI and CIA.
Some Republican members of Congress expressed surprise that they had not been consulted, and said that Abu Ghaith should have been prosecuted as an enemy combatant and held by the military at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
They issued statements Friday denouncing the decision and saying that the Obama administration was weakening the nation by not having al-Qaida figures like Abu Ghaith detained and interrogated at military facilities.
“The administration risks missing important opportunities to gather intelligence to prevent future attacks and save lives,” Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said in a statement.
In November 2009, the administration announced plans to try five people accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks in civilian court in New York. The White House backed off that plan a year and a half later after a political backlash.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said civilian courts have “a pretty good, strong track record” in handling terrorism prosecutions. He cited the men convicted of trying to blow up an airliner in December 2009 and detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, both of whom got life sentences in civilian courts.
“It is the consensus view of the president’s national security team and of agencies all across the federal government that this is the best way to handle bringing Abu Ghaith to justice,” Earnest said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said she expected that Abu Ghaith would be put away for life.
“The bottom line is the federal criminal court system works,” she said.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story was originally published on Fri Mar 8, 2013 8:11 AM EST