Trying terror suspects in the U.S.: Tough and just

The debate over how the U.S. deals with suspected terrorists captured outside the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan flared up again last week when the Obama administration announced charges in New York against a Somali man with alleged ties to militant groups in North Africa and the Middle East. The move directly challenges a ban imposed by Congress last year that prohibits the government from transporting Guantanamo Bay detainees captured overseas to this country for trial in civilian courts. The case is also likely to revive long-running controversies over the fate of the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the role of military commissions in trying terrorist suspects and what rights detainees have during interrogations.

The suspect, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, is charged with providing support to al-Shabab, a Somali-based Islamist group fighting the U.S.-backed central government there, and to Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which counterterrorism officials consider particularly dangerous because of its previous attempts to target the U.S. homeland. Mr. Warsame, who joined al-Shabab in 2007, apparently received weapons and explosives training in Yemen and became a key operative working to forge closer ties between the two organizations.

In April, Mr. Warsame was captured aboard a fishing trawler in international waters between Yemen and Somalia. He was taken to a Navy vessel and questioned there for the next two months by military interrogators. Then an FBI team was called in, and he was questioned again after he was read his Miranda rights, which he waived. Presumably, the charges against him are based on answers he gave to the FBI investigators, since anything he said before that would be inadmissible as evidence in a civilian court.

The Obama administration has long insisted that the civilian courts are the proper venue for trying terrorist suspects, regardless of where in the world they are apprehended. The case last year of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who was accused of conspiracy and murder in connection with the 1988 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 242 people, showed that federal courts are perfectly capable of meting out justice using standard rules of evidence and with results just as definitive as those rendered by a military commission. It's a virtual certainty that Mr. Ghailani will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

In the case of Mr. Warsame, officials say, the federal courts offer even stiffer penalties for defendants and fewer legal hurdles for prosecutors than their military counterparts. The government will have to show only that Mr. Warsame provided support to al-Shabab and AQAP, while a military tribunal would have the more difficult task of proving that he belonged to al-Qaida or that he personally engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or its allies. If convicted by a federal jury, he could face life in prison.

Mr. Obama came into office pledging to close Guantanamo, shut down its military tribunals and bring the remaining prisoners to detention facilities in the U.S. to await trial. But that plan was thwarted when Congress blocked funds to transport Guantanamo inmates onto American soil. Now the administration is attempting an end-run around the ban by bypassing Guantanamo altogether and bringing captured suspects like Mr. Warsame directly to courts in the U.S.

That tactic has already been criticized by Republicans in Congress such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon. Last week, Mr. McKeon denounced the transfer as "unacceptable," saying "Congress has spoken clearly multiple times — including explicitly in pending legislation — of the perils of bringing terrorists onto U.S. soil."

Never mind that Congress can't speak, explicitly or otherwise, through "pending legislation." The bigger irony is that Republicans, who claim to be tough on terrorism, would rather take suspects like Mr. Warsame out of the federal courts, where the penalties are tougher and convictions easier to win, and put them in military tribunals, where the situation is just the opposite. Under the circumstances, it's hard to view their protests as anything but partisan posturing.

The real issue is whether the U.S. needs to abandon the fundamental principles of fairness and the rule of law in order to defend itself effectively against terrorist threats. It does not. The system of military tribunals at Guantanamo was flawed from the start, and neither justice nor the country's need for accurate, timely intelligence have ever been served by brutalizing prisoners. The New York jury that found Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani guilty did so despite the fact that much of the most damning evidence against him had to be thrown out because it was obtained through torture. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was right to seek to try alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in civilian court, rather than before a military commission abroad, even though he ultimately was forced to reverse that decision. The same is true of Mr. Warsame's case.

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