Tag: al-Marri

Domestic Military Detention Isn’t Necessary

I make the case that domestic military detention for all terrorism suspects isn’t necessary in this piece over at the Huffington Post. Legislative proposals by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) would mandate military detention instead of criminal prosecution for all those suspected of international terrorism. I oppose this policy change for reasons both principled and practical:

If the civil rule of law handles terrorist threats adequately, then invoking military jurisdiction is a counterproductive overreaction.

That was the case with one of the handful of domestically detained enemy combatants, Ali al-Marri. Al-Marri was an honest-to-goodness Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student. The FBI indicted him on charges that could have carried a 115-year maximum sentence. The government requested that the judge dismiss its charges with prejudice, meaning that they could not be levied again, and moved him to a naval brig.

The Supreme Court ultimately agreed to hear al-Marri’s case, but the government mooted the case when it removed al-Marri from military custody and charged him with material support of terrorism. Al-Marri pleaded guilty and received a sentence of eight years and four months.

Al-Marri’s case was a missed opportunity. The government should have put him away for life.

This isn’t the first time McKeon and McCain have proposed treating all terrorism suspects like al-Marri and Jose Padilla. I criticized a similar proposal a year ago, as did Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution. Wittes’ criticisms of this year’s bad ideas are here and here. Given the excellent track record of federal courts in prosecuting terrorism cases and the recent death of bin Laden, now is not the time to roll back the civil rule of law.

The Case against Domestic Military Detention

Washington is consumed once more with the problem of terrorism, driven by the dual pressures of an unsuccessful terrorist attack on commercial aviation and upcoming elections that give politicians an incentive to speak in terms of war. We are again treated to the ridiculous argument that a terrorist attack is either an act of war or a criminal violation but never both. Senators McCain and Lieberman recently proposed a bill that mandates military detention for domestic terror suspects instead of civilian criminal justice proceedings – an approach that sidelines half of our domestic counterterrorism tools.

The Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010 would use military detention to incapacitate suspected terrorists. Choosing military detention over prosecution takes criminal justice tools off the table, including prosecuting terrorists for the instrumentalities of terrorism – assembling bombs, financing, and all of the illegal activities associated with attacking the system.

We’ve been down this road before, and domestic military detention in lieu of criminal prosecution has not worked as advertised.

Take the case of Ali Saleh Mohamed Kahlah al-Marri. After the 9/11 attacks, the FBI arrested al-Marri, an exchange student at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. The government alleged that al-Marri met with Osama Bin Laden, was working with senior al Qaeda organizers, had a more-than-casual interest in poisons, and was told by his handlers to be in America before September 11th or to forget about executing his mission here.

Terrorism, even when it can be viewed as an act of war perpetrated by a sleeper agent such as al-Marri, inherently breaks laws. Al-Marri arrived in the United States with a suitcase full of credit card numbers and set up a false business entity and bank accounts to finance his mission.

The government produced a seven-count indictment that, if proven, would have put al-Marri away for a long time. The charges included fraudulent use of a false identity (five or fifteen years, depending on the amount of money involved), three counts of bank fraud (thirty years each for a total of 90 years), making false statements to FBI investigators (ten years), and credit card fraud (ten years). This amounts to a maximum sentence of 115 or 125 years in federal prison. Subsequent sentence enhancers for committing these crimes in support of an act of international terrorism make the same indictment worth up to 146 years today.

That’s an impressive prison stretch, but it wasn’t too late for the government to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Before al-Marri’s trial, the government removed him to military custody and asked that the charges against him be dismissed with prejudice (meaning that they cannot be re-filed upon his release). He remained in a naval brig in South Carolina as lawyers fought over his continued detention without trial. No military commission was ever planned for al-Marri. This was a power play to establish the precedent that terrorism suspects could be held indefinitely without trial, and the government asserted at oral argument before the 4th Circuit that the process al-Marri received is what any American citizen would receive.

The Supreme Court agreed to review his case, prompting the Obama administration to move al-Marri back to the civilian criminal justice system in early 2009. The government re-indicted al-Marri on two counts of material support of terrorism (maximum sentence of thirty years). He pleaded guilty to one count and received eight years. The judge was barred from officially giving credit for time served in military custody, but a fifteen-year sentence minus six years and change for being in military custody is what he received.

The al-Marri case was not a success. He should have been locked up for the rest of his life, but cramming a set of civilian crimes into a case for military detention failed to protect national security and provide justice.

The McCain-Lieberman proposal would have pushed al-Marri’s trial into a military commission. As they stand now, our military commissions have jurisdiction over material support of terrorism but not the panoply of federal statutes that allow prosecution of the instrumentalities of terrorism. The Founders allowed Congress to punish war crimes –- “Offenses against the Law of Nations” –- and bank fraud does not fit the bill. Congress could add a catch-all provision to the commissions’ statute, but do we really want military officers sitting in judgment of domestic financial crimes?

Many terrorist acts are simultaneously acts of war and criminal violations, and applying one legal paradigm to the exclusion of the other makes for good politics but terrible policy. The United States should continue to use its criminal justice tools. Conservatives have been railing for years about limits on the Executive during wartime; passing this bill would certainly tie the Executive’s hands. If you can get 146 years, take it. We can defeat al Qaeda both on the battlefield and in the courtroom.

Cheney vs. Obama: Tale of the Tape

In case you missed it, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney spoke separately today on terrorism and national security. Like two boxers at a pre-fight press conference, they each touted their strength over their opponent. They espoused deep differences in their views on national counterterrorism strategy.

The Thrilla in Manilla it ain’t. As Gene Healy has pointed out, they agree on a lot more than they admit to. Harvard Law professor and former Bush Office of Legal Counsel head Jack Goldsmith makes the same point at the New Republic. Glenn Greenwald made a similar observation.

However, the areas where they differ are important: torture, closing Guantanamo, criminal prosecution, and messaging. In these key areas, Obama edges out Cheney.

Torture

Cheney:

I was and remain a strong proponent of our enhanced interrogation program. The interrogations were used on hardened terrorists after other efforts failed. They were legal, essential, justified, successful, and the right thing to do.

Obama:

I reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation. What’s more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us in the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and increase the will of our enemies to fight us, while decreasing the will of others to work with America. They risk the lives of our troops by making it less likely that others will surrender to them in battle, and more likely that Americans will be mistreated if they are captured.

Torture is incompatible with our values and our national security interests. When we break our own rules (read: laws) against torture, we erode everyone’s faith that America is the good guy in this global fight.

Torture has been embraced by politicians, but the people who are fighting terrorists on the ground want none of it. As former FBI agent Ali Soufan made clear in Senate hearings last week, it is not an effective interrogation technique. Senior military leaders such as General Petraeus, former CENTCOM commanders Joseph Hoar and Anthony Zinni, and former Commandant of the Marine Corps Charles Krulak all denounce the use of torture.

If we captured Al Qaeda operatives who had tortured one of our soldiers in pursuit of information, we would be prosecuting them. Torture is no different and no more justifiable because we are doing it.

Closing Guantanamo

Cheney:

I think the President will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.

Obama:

[I]nstead of serving as a tool to counter-terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.

This is an area where Cheney is disagreeing not just with Obama but with John McCain. We would be having this debate regardless of who won the last Presidential election. Get over it.

The current political climate gives you the impression that we are going to let detainees loose in the Midwest with bus fare and a gift certificate for a free gun at the local sporting goods store. Let’s be realistic about this.

We held hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war in America during World War II. The detainees we have now are not ten feet tall and bulletproof, and federal supermax prisons hold the same perfect record of keeping prisoners inside their walls as the detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay.

Criminal Prosecution

Obama basically said that we will try those we can, release those who we believe pose no future threat, and detain those that fit in neither of the first two categories. That’s not a change in policy and that pesky third category isn’t going away.

Obama and Cheney do have some sharp differences as to the reach of war powers versus criminal prosecution.

Cheney:

And when you hear that there are no more, quote, “enemy combatants,” as there were back in the days of that scary war on terror, at first that sounds like progress. The only problem is that the phrase is gone, but the same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers are still there.

Obama:

Recently, we prosecuted and received a guilty plea from a detainee - al-Marri - in federal court after years of legal confusion. We are preparing to transfer another detainee to the Southern District of New York, where he will face trial on charges related to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania - bombings that killed over 200 people.

I have written extensively on al-Marri, the last person to be detained domestically as an enemy combatant. The FBI did everything right when it investigated and indicted this Al Qaeda sleeper agent masquerading as an exchange student, only to have the Bush administration remove those charges in order to preserve the possibility of detaining domestic criminals under wartime powers. This claim of governmental power is a perversion of executive authority that Obama was right to repudiate.

The man being indicted in New York is Ahmed Gailani. If he is convicted for his role in the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, he will join his co-conspirators Wadih El-Hage, Mohammed Odeh, Mohammed al-Owhali, and Khalfan Mohammed in a supermax.

This is also where we hold 1993 World Trade Center bombers Ramzi Yousef, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”), Mohammed Salameh, Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abouhalima, and Ahmed Ajaj.

Not to mention would-be trans-pacific airline bombers Wali Khan Amin Shah and Abdul Hakim Murad.

Al Qaeda operatives Mohammed Jabarah, Jose Padilla, and Abu Ali will share his mailing address.

Let’s not forget American Taliban Johnny Walker Lindh, Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, Al Qaeda and Hamas financier Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad, Oregon terrorist training camp organizer Ernest James Ujaama, and would-be Millenium Bomber Ahmed Ressam.

That’s a lot of bad guys. It’s almost like we’re checking names off a list or something.

Messaging

Cheney:

Behind the overwrought reaction to enhanced interrogations is a broader misconception about the threats that still face our country. You can sense the problem in the emergence of euphemisms that strive to put an imaginary distance between the American people and the terrorist enemy. Apparently using the term “war” where terrorists are concerned is starting to feel a bit dated.

Obama: no quote is necessary here. The differences in narrative between Obama and Cheney are clear and woven into what Obama says.

Terrorism is about messaging. America finds herself in the unenviable position of fighting an international terrorist group, Al Qaeda, that is trying to convince local insurgents to join its cause. Calling this a “War on Terror” can create a war on everybody if we use large-scale military solutions for intelligence, law enforcement, and diplomatic problems.

We have to tie every use of force or governmental power to a message: drop leaflets whenever we drop a bomb, hold a press conference whenever we conduct a raid, and publish a court decision whenever we detain someone. Giving the enemy the initiative in messaging gives them the initiative in the big picture.

Conclusion

Once we get past the rhetoric, the differences are few but worth noting. I take Obama in the third round by TKO.

Al-Marri Pleads Guilty

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri pleaded guilty to conspiring with al Qaeda leaders to commit acts of terrorism yesterday.  He could be sentenced up to 15 years in prison, though he has spent nearly half that awaiting trial and may get credit for the time already served.

Al-Marri was an exchange student who arrived in the United States on September 10th, 2001 as an al Qaeda sleeper agent.  Read the government’s declaration of facts used to detain him.  This is the stuff of movies; the FBI took a dangerous man off the streets when it arrested him.

Unfortunately, the government took him out of the criminal justice system and asked that the charges against him be dismissed with prejudice (meaning that they cannot be re-filed in the future).  He became a domestically detained enemy combatant and the test case for future domestic military detentions.  Just as attorneys seek sympathetic plaintiffs to overturn unjust laws, the government can find unsympathetic defendants to justify overbroad claims of power.  Al-Marri is about as unsympathetic as you can get.

The real tragedy is that al-Marri will serve a relatively short sentence.  Had the government prosecuted him on the seven charges alleged the first time around, he would have been put away for decades.  Related posts here, here, here, and here.

Supreme Court Will Not Hear al-Marri Appeal

The Supreme Court previously granted certiorari to the appeal of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, the only enemy combatant taken into custody domestically and detained in a military brig. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that he could continue to be detained as an alleged al Qaeda operative without trial. The Supreme Court reversed its decision to hear the case today.

The Obama administration moved him back into the civilian criminal justice system, and denied that it was doing so to keep the lower domestic detainee precedent intact. It argued that denying review while vacating the Fourth Circuit’s decision would serve the ends of justice. Apparently, the Court agreed.

As I have said before, domestic counterterrorism is a law enforcement task, not a military one. The Washington Post and New York Times both wanted the Supreme Court to hear the case and rule that domestic detention is unconstitutional.

Obama’s actions seem to indicate either a lack of interest or a disagreement with the sweeping power claimed by President Bush, that presidents can simply whisk off any person in the U.S. — including citizens — to a military prison without a trial. But now that the Supreme Court has declined to rule on the executive’s claims in this case, we will not have the benefit of a Supreme Court precedent repudiating the executive’s overreach. Whether or not Obama tries to repeat what Bush did, another president will likely try to do it again. Not good.