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Obama administration shows how to treat a terrorist suspect

Editorial

Bringing Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame to the U.S. for a civilian trial demonstrates to the world that the United States is willing to afford due process even to its bitterest enemies.

July 09, 2011

Republicans are livid about the way the Obama administration handled the apprehension and arrest of an accused Somali terrorist. But — with one exception — the treatment of Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was a creditable balancing of national security concerns and due process. President Obama should resist pressure in Congress to make such an approach impossible.

Warsame was arrested April 19 and interrogated on a U.S. Navy ship before being flown to New York. He is accused in a nine-count federal indictment of supplying material support to Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Somali group Shabab.

Republicans have two complaints. They argue that bringing Warsame to the United States violated congressional statements opposing the transfer of suspected terrorists to the United States. The other grievance is that Warsame will be tried in a civilian court. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) combined the two criticisms: "The administration has purposefully imported a terrorist into the U.S. and is providing him all the rights of U.S. citizens in court."

It is easy to dispose of the canard that accused terrorists can't be brought to the United States because their trials would pose a danger to the public. Several terrorist trials, including that of 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, have been held without incident. As for the argument that Warsame shouldn't be given "all the rights of U.S. citizens," it is precisely that feature of civilian trials that demonstrates to the world that the United States is willing to afford due process even to its bitterest enemies.

If the administration is to be criticized for anything, it's the decision to hold Warsame on a ship. The structure of the interrogation itself was defensible. Warsame was questioned for intelligence-gathering purposes without being read a Miranda warning (meaning that nothing he said could be used against him in a criminal trial), then read his rights before a separate criminal interrogation. That is likely increasingly tobe the model for questioning alleged terrorists.

But holding a suspect on a ship creates a coercive atmosphere regardless of how scrupulous questioners are. Detention at sea also is reminiscent of the "black sites" used by the George W. Bush administration to interrogate suspected terrorists. Warsame should have been brought to the United States for questioning.

Congress already has barred the transfer to the United States of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, and the House has passed legislation barring the transfer of detainees from anywhere outside the country. Enactment of such legislation would foreclose the possibility of civilian trials like the one Warsame is facing. Obama needs to stand his ground and veto such legislation.

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