NC Sen. candidates divided on terror trials, war

NC Sen. candidates divided on terror trials, war

Cal Cunningham, Ken Lewis, Elaine Marshall


by MIKE BAKER / Associated Press

Posted on April 12, 2010 at 2:17 PM

Will a candidate's position on the health care debate influence your vote in the May primary in North Carolina or the June primary in South Carolina?

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- Two major national security issues -- how to handle the war in Afghanistan and how to handle terrorism suspects at home -- are dividing North Carolina's top three Democratic candidate's for U.S. Senate.

Cal Cunningham, seeking to become the first Iraq war veteran in the Senate, drew from his experience there as reason to support President Barack Obama's new offensive in Afghanistan. Cunningham worked as an Army attorney in Iraq during 2008, shortly after former President George W. Bush's surge strategy there.

"I've seen it work," Cunningham said during one of a series of interviews The Associated Press conducted with the leading Senate candidates. "Let's solve this now. I've got a 6-year-old, and when he's 18, I don't want him going through boot camp to deal with something that I -- and this generation -- ought to go ahead and get done."

Cunningham was the most forceful of the three top Democratic candidates in supporting Obama's plan, which is adding tens of thousands of new troops in a bid to alter the course of an 8-year-long war. One of his rivals, Ken Lewis, has staked out middle ground by declaring that he supports a limited commitment to give the Afghan people a chance to stabilize their country. Lewis acknowledged struggling with the idea of committing more U.S. lives to the cause.

"I wrestled with that because it is a difficult choice," he said. "Frankly, I respect people who come out a different way on it because it's one of those areas that is not a slam dunk."

North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, meanwhile, said she sees an Afghan government riddled with corruption, billions of dollars wasted on trying to train the country's police force and no pathway for the United States to create stability. She disagrees that a summer offensive will do anything to dismantle the Taliban.

"They will disperse before we're there. They will come back after we're gone," she said.

Cunningham, Marshall and Lewis emerged earlier this year as the strongest candidates to challenge for Republican Sen. Richard Burr's seat, each entering 2010 with more than $100,00 in campaign cash. Three other, less-prominent candidates are in the race and were asked to respond in writing to a series of AP questions:

-- Marcus Williams, an attorney, said he supports a withdrawal of troops after Obama's surge is complete.

-- Ann Worthy of Gastonia said while she didn't favor deploying more troops into Afghanistan, she believes Obama's handling of conditions there and Iraq is consistent with his campaign promises.

-- Susan Harris of Old Fort didn't respond to the questionnaire. No one answered Monday at the telephone number she gave the State Board of Elections when she filed.

Worthy and the three leading candidates all said they support providing Miranda warnings to terrorism suspects captured in the United States, but some were less convinced about how to handle terror suspects already in captivity at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- particularly those for whom the government may not have enough evidence to prosecute.

Marshall said she'd prefer that cases be handled in a military court, which might be better suited for handling war-related charges, but she said some cases may be better suited for civilian court. She floated the idea of repatriating suspects being held with little evidence, but said the handling of those detainees remains an issue.

"I would like to hear a very good suggestion," she said.

Cunningham's approach was the opposite, preferring civilian court over military. For those cases with little evidence, he also suggested possible repatriation to other countries to face charges but stressed the need to have a fair process for each detainee.

"We need to have some sort of credible, public judicial process that these individuals go through," Cunningham said. "There needs to be a public airing of why we hold them, what we've got and some sort of accountability to the rest of the world."

Worthy said she supported trials in federal courts, while Williams said Congress should consider passing legislation if it wants a consistent policy on these suspects.

The White House announced plans to prosecute self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York but then backed away from that idea. Officials have yet to announce new plans on where he and other alleged conspirators will face trial.

Lewis said he feels the debate between civilian or military trials has been politicized and that the nation should stand by its principle of being a place that believes in justice and fairness. He noted that federal courts have been used effectively in the past but didn't express a preference for whether to use civilian or military courts.

He said he wasn't entirely sure how to handle those who may not have evidence, simply saying that the nation needs to strike a balance between safety and justice.

"I'm not sure I can give you an answer on how we strike that balance today," Lewis said. "It's likely to be imperfect."