Dan Thomasson: The other day I asked a liberal friend whether he considered someone arrested in an attempted act of terror a warrior or merely a criminal?
The other day I asked a liberal friend whether he considered someone arrested in an attempted act of terror a warrior or merely a criminal? He replied that he definitely felt the person, particularly if not a citizen of this country, should be considered a warrior or enemy combatant if caught on U.S. soil or, for that matter, in a war zone.
Should not the military then be in charge of his incarceration and prosecution? I asked. It is a question that has roiled the political waters since Sept. 11, 2001, one that cuts across all philosophical and ideological lines and may never be answered to everyone's satisfaction. Two presidents have wrestled with it and have found it among their thorniest problems.
The latest uproar, of course, centers on the handling of the case of the Nigerian youth who tried to detonate a bomb in his skivvies on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. While Barack Obama receives generally high marks for his overall security policies, a majority of Americans believe that the would-be "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as a foreign national should not have been given the same rights as an accused citizen of the United States.
Republicans charge that Abdulmutallab was quickly granted a lawyer after his arrest. But an obviously sensitive Obama administration contends that it was nine hours before he was read his Miranda rights and released a timetable of events surrounding his detention. Initial questioning did end after 50 minutes when doctors said his medical condition was precarious. He went into surgery for four hours and when he was out refused to answer further question. He was then read his rights under the criminal justice system, according to the administration's timetable.
Of course this begs the question whether this is a civilian or military case, whether one setting out on a mission of war in civilian clothes is any less an enemy combatant than one who belongs to a military unit of another country and is easily identifiable? Should he have been treated according to civilian or military justice rules?
For centuries saboteurs and spies caught without uniforms faced certain death, probably without even a trial. There is little doubt apparently that Abdulmutallab was trained and sent on his suicide mission by those whose intent is to do harm to Americans on their own soil. Under those circumstances it seems obvious that he is an enemy combatant as certain as those fighting overseas and should not be granted the protection of the U.S. legal system. His value is the information he can provide about his handlers and their operation.
How that information is obtained is another divisive question with the likes of former Vice President Richard Cheney supporting methods that have been classified as torture, including water boarding, a technique that stirs fierce debate and that the president has declared an illegal method of interrogation. On the other hand even those who agree with this decision also acknowledge that allowing obvious enemies of the state protective privileges that delay their legal interrogation is harmful to security.
Although the Nigerian reportedly has begun to talk about his al-Qaeda training and orders, his initial refusal to continue after a brief interrogation casts some doubt on his reliability. He did after all have time to decide what might be less harmful to his allies but good enough to exchange for some sort of lenience.
Even those of us who have not been trained in the niceties of American jurisprudence would have a tough time supporting Obama's decision placing Abdulmutallab in the hands of civilian courts. Al-Qaeda qualifies as a military organization dedicated to eradicating as many of us as possible. It is ludicrous to grant one of its soldiers the rights of Americans, many of whom would have died had he been successful. This person belongs under the jurisdiction of the military justice system.
The president needs to seriously rethink this policy. Cheney is right when he argues it is owed the past and future victims of a faceless, insidious enemy.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.