Terrorism Tangle

Posted Feb. 03, 2010, at 6:55 p.m.

The Obama administration deserves some criticism for its handling of terrorists in custody, but that shouldn’t distract from the real problem: keeping terrorists out of the country and disrupting their networks.

The administration’s handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 24-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up a plane en route to Detroit on Christmas Day, is the focus of much second-guessing and criticism.

Sen. Susan Collins, in delivering the Republican Party’s weekly online address Saturday, was especially harsh.

“Less than one hour. That’s right, less than one hour. In fact, just 50 minutes,” Sen. Collins said at the beginning of her speech.

“That’s the amount of time that the FBI spent questioning Abdulmutallab, the foreign terrorist who tried to blow up a plane on Christmas Day. Then, he was given a Miranda warning and a lawyer, and, not surprisingly, he stopped talking.”

She’s right that intelligence agencies should have been consulted about how to handle the Nigerian, but her description was a bit truncated. He was questioned by other federal authorities and medical personnel for hours before the 50-minute FBI interview. He also has recently resumed talking with FBI officials, providing helpful information about al-Qaida in Yemen, according to the administration.

Sen. Collins and other members of her party and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee contend that if the FBI or intelligence agencies had continued to question him when he was first taken into custody, valuable information about al-Qaida and terrorist activities in Yemen could have been gained. Maybe, but Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” was read his Miranda rights within minutes of being detained in December 2001. He and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, were held as federal criminals — not enemy combatants — and prosecuted in federal court by the Bush administration. It did so because this was the most expedient way to secure a conviction, avoiding years of legal wrangling over whether a military tribunal, which the Bush administration proposed for most detainees, was sufficient.

The U.S. Constitution requires that foreign detainees have the same right to a trial as U.S. natives. The Supreme Court upheld this view more than 100 years ago and several times in recent years has ruled that detainees in the so-called war on terror must have access to the judicial system.

So, a bill to ban civilian trials for suspected terrorists, as some have proposed be introduced in Congress, would be a waste of time. Sen. Collins also criticized the government for not revoking the Christmas Day bomber’s visa and for allowing him to board a plane with the same explosives as the shoe bomber used eight years earlier. Plugging these holes is where she and her committee should focus their attention.

A top priority should be to speed development of a system to search numerous government databases of suspected terrorists, with the ability to use various spellings of names. Another is to quickly revoke visas before terrorists head to America.

These are overdue steps that all lawmakers should be able to agree to.

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