President Obama is expected to discuss Al Qaeda, drone strikes and Guantanamo detainees Thursday at the National Defense University in Washington. He’ll reportedly make the case on why it’s OK to kill thousands of terror suspects overseas via drones without a hearing, but why it’s not OK to hold 166 terror suspects at Guantanamo where their lockdown on Caribbean windswept bluffs beats any U.S. prison.

While he’s trying to explain such a non sequitur, he might want to also share the logic behind his administration’s harsher punishments for U.S. troops than Al Qaeda in military courtrooms.  

How and why is that even remotely possible?

Let’s take a look at some specific cases, first against the troops:

Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna – In 2009, Behenna, a platoon leader, was sentenced to 25 years for killing Ali Mansur, an Iraqi with ties to Al Qaeda who was thought be involved in an IED attack that killed two of his troops.  

During a botched, impromptu interrogation, Mansur allegedly threw a piece of concrete at Behenna then lunged for his pistol before being shot. 

Oklahoma Republican Senators Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn have spearheaded efforts by over a dozen lawmakers to point out flaws in the prosecution’s case and conflicting testimony on forensic evidence. An Army Clemency Board has since reduced the sentence to 15 years. 

Army First Sgt. John Hatley, et al – Also in 2009, Hatley received life in prison for the deaths of four Iraqi terror suspects caught fleeing a building found to have sniper rifles, assault rifles and a duffel bag of ammunition — after a shootout with his patrol.  

Hatley was convicted without any forensic evidence, just witness statements years after the fact.  His sentence has since been reduced to 40 years.  

Hatley’s two subordinates, Army Sgt. First Class Joseph Mayo received a 35-year sentence, and Army Sgt. Michael Leahy was sentenced to life in prison.

And what about Al Qaeda?

Omar Khadr – In 2010, a Gitmo military commission handed down an 8-year sentence for the 2002 murder of a Delta Force Medic, Army Sgt. First Class Christopher J. Speer in Khost, Afghanistan.  

The son of Ahmed Khadr, Usama Bin Laden’s top fundraiser during the Sept. 11 timeframe, Omar was two months shy of his 16th birthday when he threw the grenade that killed Speer, contributing to a disingenuous charm offensive waged by his defense team and supporters portraying him as merely a victim of growing up Al Qaeda.  Khadr is expected to be paroled in his native Canada next year.

Majid Khan – In 2012, Khan was sentenced at Gitmo to a maximum of 19 years for his role in the Jakarta, Indonesia Marriott bombing of 2003 that killed 11 people, and also plotting with Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to poison reservoirs and blow up gas stations in America, as well as conspiring to assassinate Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf. 

Let’s get this straight: U.S. troops get between 25 years to life, and Al Qaeda gets 19 years or less!


Although we’re at war against Al Qaeda and its sympathizers on the battlefield, ironically it’s the terrorists themselves who have seen softer treatment in military courtrooms.

There appears to be a pervasive legal mindset from the White House on down that gives adherents of radical Islam the benefit of the doubt in court — while simultaneously throwing the book at our own soldiers.  

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that numerous senior officials in Eric Holder’s Justice Department actually represented Al Qaeda-linked suspects in court before their high-level government posts.

Perhaps the greatest irony in dealing with terror suspects is the Obama administration’s lack of transparency on drone strikes overseas and now potentially within America’s own borders, including against U.S. citizens.  

It has vastly expanded the Bush administration’s drone program killing over 3,000 in places like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, such as New Mexico-born Al Qaeda figurehead Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son, Colorado-born Abdulraham.  

Though I agree it’s entirely defensible to protect Americans by taking out Al Qaeda-linked terrorists by drone strike, commando raids and other means, who’s to say who should, or should not, be on Team Obama’s kill list?  

According to a Dept. of Justice White Paper, those decisions should be left to an “informed, high level official.”  

Meaning exactly whom?

Conceivably with a few strokes of a pen, could the same terror suspects killed by Behenna, Hatley, Mayo and Leahy have been hunted down by White House-ordered drone strikes instead?  That possibility makes the lengths of their prison terms all the more difficult to reconcile — and worthy of reconsideration today.  

It’s high time Team Obama and the military courts they supervise go back to the drawing board and remember who the enemy their fighting really is.

J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He is a communications consultant to several Washington, D.C.-based think tanks.