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To curb terrorism, try criminal court

The man's cooperating, people, even after he was read his Miranda rights and given a lawyer.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to bomb a U.S. airliner on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day, has been providing valuable intelligence to the FBI since members of his family were flown in from Nigeria. His family apparently would not have cooperated had Abdulmutallab been put in military custody.

So how about Senate Republicans quit their bleating about what a towering mistake it was to respect America's rule of law and constitutional system by arresting Abdulmutallab as a terrorist criminal rather than treating him as a warrior combatant?

Hardly a week goes by without another effort by Republican lawmakers to make the Obama administration look weak on terrorism because it is choosing to prosecute suspects in the nation's civilian courts. It doesn't seem to matter that hundreds of terrorists have been successfully prosecuted in that system, many during the Bush administration, including the shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is serving life in prison. In the Republican playbook, you aren't protecting America unless you stomp on due process and hang suspects by their thumbs.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky accused the Obama administration of putting lives in jeopardy by making Abdulmutallab "a civilian defendant … rather than as an intelligence resource to be thoroughly interrogated." Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., harps upon it whenever he gets the chance. In a series of letters sent by Sessions as ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and signed by the other Republicans on the committee, Sessions demands that Holder testify on Abdulmutallab. He wants the opportunity to grandstand.

Sessions was also a premier defender of prisoner abuses committed under the Bush administration. He was one of only nine senators to vote against the Detainee Treatment Act in 2005 that barred inhumane treatment.

Had Abdulmutallab been treated as an enemy combatant using the kinds of Bush-era techniques that Sessions supports, he may not have been so cooperative. Experts say that using brutality is a less effective means of intelligence gathering than rapport-building, provoking prisoners to clam up or tell their persecutor anything he wants to hear.

As Holder said Wednesday in his letter to Senate Republicans, there is no "known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system."

Senate Republicans are also largely behind an effort to block the criminal trials of the five 9/11 suspects. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a bill Tuesday to prevent the Justice Department from spending any money on the prosecutions. An earlier effort to do the same thing was defeated in November, but hey, it's good politics, forcing Democrats to defend the rights of terrorists.

The military commission system that Republicans want to use for these prosecutions will not be viewed as fair, because it isn't. By trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the four other 9/11 plotters in criminal court, Obama is demonstrating to the world that America is back to respecting its own traditions of justice after the pounding they took under President George W. Bush.

There are two ways to make America safe from terror. The first is to prevent attacks through good counterterrorism efforts. The second is to prevent them by engendering good will in places where anti-Western terrorism would otherwise take root. By arresting Abdulmutallab, not mistreating him, using legal means of questioning and providing him fair process, the Obama administration is pursuing both strategies.

It's true that there will be times when a terror suspect given a lawyer will be uncooperative. But we also know from years of experience that putting a prisoner in military custody can result in the same defiance. Better to embrace the best part of who we are than follow the darker path that Republicans in Congress would lead us down.

To curb terrorism, try criminal court 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 3:30am]
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