Debate Over Handling of Somali Terror Suspect

The Obama administration’s decision to charge a Somali man in federal court on terrorism charges has triggered new debate over the best venue for prosecuting detainees.

Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame was interrogated aboard a Navy ship before he was taken to New York and indicted. With his case, “the Obama administration is trying out a new approach for dealing with foreign terrorism suspects,” according to a New York Times article.

The administration elected not to send the new prisoner to Guantanamo Bay, the military detention facility that President Obama wants to close. In addition, Congress has voted to block funds for delivering Guantanamo detainees into the United States.

Leading Republicans criticized the handling of Warsame, saying such detainees should be taken to Guantanamo for trial before a military commission.

“The administration has purposefully imported a terrorist into the U.S. and is providing him all the rights of U.S. citizens in court,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said last week. Over the weekend, he added another concern, saying the acquittal of a Florida mother accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter showed why the U.S. courts can’t be relied upon for prosecuting terror suspects, according to a Fox News report.

In other quarters, there have been ringing endorsements of the approach taken with Warsame.

“Obama administration shows how to treat a terrorist suspect,” declared a Los Angeles Times editorial headline. It went on: “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.”

A Baltimore Sun editorial similarly sided with the Obama administration’s approach and said:

“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. …  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.”

A Washington Post editorial went further. Congress has signaled an interest in banning trials in federal court of terror suspects, relegating all of them to to military commissions, the editorial said. In this climate, it said, the particulars of Warsame’s case suggest the need for a different framework for detaining  a “lone wolf” terror suspect.

This alternate route would ensure justice for suspects who are not accused of ties to terror groups, or with links to non al-Qaeda groups, the editorial said. It called for revising the federal Authorization for Use of Military Force and also creation of a court overseen by a federal judge and used when military commissions or prosecutions in federal courts are not a viable route.



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