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The N.Y. Subway Bomber talks

The guilty plea Monday by the so-called New York subway bomber, Najubullah Zazi, and his promise to cooperate with investigators, should give pause to critics of the Obama administration who oppose trying terrorist suspects in federal courts rather than in military tribunals. In Mr. Zazi's case, the system appears to have worked exactly as intended: No one pulled out his fingernails or waterboarded him to make him talk, yet the government is getting valuable information from an Al-Qaeda operative about his training and network of associates, while Mr. Zazi's confession ensures he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The Afghan-born Mr. Zazi, a Colorado shuttle bus driver who was living in this country legally, told investigators he traveled to Pakistan in 2008 to join insurgents fighting in Afghanistan. But before he could get there he was recruited by Al-Qaeda, which persuaded him to stage attacks inside the U.S. instead. Mr. Zazi was trained to make bombs by Al-Qaeda, then returned to the U.S. with a plan to target the New York subway system with explosives made from chemicals he purchased at a beauty supply store. Attorney General Eric Holder said the plot was disrupted last year, only days before it was scheduled to be carried out in commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

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In hailing Mr. Zazi's arrest and prosecution, Mr. Holder defended the policy of prosecuting terrorists in civilian courts against those who claim adherence to the rule of law and humane treatment of prisoners weakens the government's fight against terrorism. On the contrary, said Mr. Holder, "in this case, as it has in so many other cases, the criminal justice system has proved to be an invaluable weapon for disrupting plots and incapacitating terrorists, one that works in concert with the intelligence community and our military."

If anything, this case shows the federal courts are more than able to deal with terror suspects like Mr. Zazi and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged underwear bomber who is accused of trying to blow up an international flight over Detroit on Christmas Day. Mr. Abdulmutallab, who has not yet been convicted, is also providing investigators with useful intelligence as part of a reported plea deal. Both cases refute the argument that only beatings, torture and secret overseas trials can protect the American people from harm.

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If the U.S. is to win the war on terror it must show the world that our system is better than that of our adversaries, and that will be a lot easier to do if people are persuaded to work with us because they share our belieft that the rule of law trumps brute force and anarchy. We can win all the battles in the world and still gain nothing if our actions at home don't live up to the democratic ideals we profess. The last thing we should do is abandon bedrock traditions that are the most important thing separating us from our enemies. If the case of Mr. Zazi shows anything, it is that we don't have to in order to win.

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