In 1942 we caught 8 Nazi saboteurs landing on U.S. soil to blow things up. The leader of the group turned himself in and gave away the whole show. They were all quickly tried before a military tribunal. Six were executed and one who helped betray the group was given life. The leader, who came to the FBI and dumped $84,000 on the assistant director's desk to finally get his attention, was given 30 years.
Two things strike me as important about this case for our current war on terror.
First, the saboteur turned himself in because he was confident he would not be tortured.
Second, the spies were given timely trials with real counsel.
I think their sentences were proportionate. At their trial, all eight said they were forced into the mission by the Nazis, and never intended to go through with their mission. However, in the brief time before they were caught, six of them did nothing but spend their mission money on high living. They were executed.
The two who agreed to betray the mission differed in how quickly they acted. The one who dithered got life, later commuted to deportation. The one who actually made repeated efforts to contact the FBI got 30 years, also later commuted to deportation. I think he might have been given more recognition for his efforts to mitigate, especially after the war.
The mission failed so utterly that Hitler decided to stop a planned sabotage attack.
J. Edgar Hoover, not surprisingly, covered up the fact that the spies had turned themselves in, and had to keep coming back and insisting that they were really spies in order to get the bureau to listen.
What does this have to do with our war on terror? The 9/11 attackers spent the weeks before the attack in wild living at bin Laden's expense. Perhaps if they had been assured that they would not be tortured or executed, one of them might have betrayed the group. That is very hard to unravel now, especially since the Bush administration's commitment to torture was not clear at that time.
Now, though, it is clear that the current administration tortures and defends torture, as well as suspending habeas corpus, denying counsel, and endlessly delaying trials. This discourages would-be enemy agents from turning themselves in. We would do much better to apply American standards of justice to our enemies precisely because they would not do the same to us. We can win hearts and minds, win the clash of civilizations, and prevent future 9/11s by being the best Americans we can -- not the worst.