Tag: preventive detention

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.

First, They Came for the Sex Offenders

First, they came for the sex offenders. I am not a sex offender, but I opposed the civil commitment of sex offenders by the federal government because it is not an activity within the enumerated powers of Congress. The Supreme Court decided otherwise in Comstock, with the exception of Justices Thomas and Scalia.

Next, they will come for suspected terrorists. As Dahlia Lithwick (who I rarely agree with – here is her commentary on the Heller case) points out, the Supreme Court’s decision in Comstock may have some frightening implications for domestic preventive detention of terrorism suspects in lieu of criminal prosecution.

I saw this firsthand last summer when I attended a scholars meeting with the Obama administration’s Detention Policy Task Force (the same one that Andy McCarthy publicly refused to attend). I gave my views on where detention policy should go, as did a conference room full of experts on the laws of armed conflict and criminal justice (who shall remain anonymous, as this meeting was off the record). I was dismayed to hear a law professor from a prestigious university propose a system of preventive detention as the logical solution to countering terrorism. Worse yet, to make this law less provocative, the professor further proposed that preventive detention should be applied in other criminal contexts, so that the department of pre-crime would not be seen as unfairly targeting only enemy combatants overseas. This professor had taught many of the Department of Justice staffers in the room, and I looked around to see heads nodding at the suggestion.

I responded forcefully that such a system is antithetical to American traditions of due process. Battlefield detention is necessary to incapacitate insurgents and terrorists overseas, and is often employed in lieu of killing them. Broad powers of detention without trial in the criminal context do not make Guantanamo less controversial; they bring it on to our shores and in to our courtrooms. If we have enough information to show that someone is a threat by a preponderance of the evidence in order to detain them, we probably have enough to indict them for conspiracy. One of the reasons that few people turn to political violence in the United States is that the Bill of Rights bars the government from telling the citizenry how to worship, what to think, and what they can say. Generally speaking, you have to actually be a criminal to get charged as one.

Would the votes in Comstock translate into a Supreme Court ratification of such a system? Probably not, since Kennedy and Alito stressed in their concurrences that the circumstances in Comstock are unique. And Hamdi showed us that Scalia takes habeas corpus rights seriously when it comes to citizens. Unfortunately, only Stevens shared this view and he looks to be replaced by Elena Kagan, who argued that civil commitment in Comstock was an extension of Congress’ power to create and run a prison system (not an enumerated power). But this isn’t about counting the noses currently on the Court; it’s about creating a new normal where the people in prison are detainees, not defendants.

Unfortunately, there are more than a few people in favor of such a system. Jack Goldsmith and Neal Katyal (now the acting Solicitor General) propose a terrorism court. Sens.  McCain and Lieberman want to treat all terrorism suspects as enemy combatants. Sens.  Lieberman and Brown want to strip the citizenship of terrorism suspects and try them by military commission. Sens. Graham and McCain plan to close Guantanamo by creating a preventive detention court. Take a conservative plan to deal with enemy combatants captured on the other side of the world, strap on some liberal angst over tea parties and militia groups, and you’ve got a bipartisan plan for wholesale degradation of everyone’s liberties.

And when the proposal comes, the first thing they’ll say is that this is how we already deal with sex offenders.

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.

McCarthy’s World

The NYC/Denver terrorism investigation has Andy McCarthy all riled up.

In this article at National Review, McCarthy says that the risks associated with terrorism require a domestic preventive detention regime where investigators can go to a court with something less than probable cause and detain individuals without charge until they can gather the evidence for an indictment.

This is a pretty bold proposition, given the fact that he lays out in this post on The Corner the power that investigators already have to detain material witnesses while gathering evidence. Not to mention the power to detain allegedly dangerous individuals picked up on relatively minor charges such as lying to federal agents, the current disposition of the NYC/Denver suspects.

Then McCarthy comes full circle in this post, claiming that if this is the fault of a “law enforcement” mindset in counterterrorism, it may be time to consider a domestic intelligence agency akin to Britain’s MI-5. He also blasts the use of non-coercive interrogation “that the Left insists are just as reliable in a ticking-bomb situation as the CIA’s coercive methods.”

There are several problems with this take on domestic counterterrorism.

The first is that the decision to involve a New York imam in the investigation, a step that compromised the operation and forced investigators to make early arrests before all of the co-conspirators could be identified, was made by an intelligence organization, the NYPD’s Intelligence Division. This is not the cops of the Counterterrorism Bureau, the law enforcement officers that work with the FBI in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, but a separate intelligence department run by a former CIA official who is openly hostile to the Bureau. The same type of folks that McCarthy wants to put in charge of domestic counterterrorism.

Second, McCarthy’s plug for coercive interrogation is the path advocated in the early years of the Bush administration. This has the deleterious effect (beyond statutory bans on torture and constitutional rights prohibiting the same) of making anything you get from the “third degree” inadmissible in court. To get around this you would have to ask courts to generate a doctrine that allows for evidence collected as a result of coercive interrogation to be admitted in spite of clear constitutional violations. I don’t see any way that this does not seep into general law enforcement, where any potential future crime justifies beating information or confessions out of suspects. This is rolling back civil liberties a hundred years or so.

Third, a domestic prevention regime is destined to run into the problems that the British encountered in Northern Ireland. IRA detainees that were subjected to “special interrogation techniques” and held without charge staged a hunger strike to protest being treated as criminals instead of detainees; their jailers had taken away their civilian clothes and made them wear prison uniforms. As former FBI Agent and counterterrorism expert Mike German says in his book, Thinking Like a Terrorist:

The reasons for the hunger strike reveal much about the IRA and about terrorists in general. They didn’t strike over the anti-Catholic discrimination that led to the civil rights movement. They didn’t strike over the RUC’s police abuse or the stationing of British troops in Northern Ireland. They didn’t strike over being arrested without charges, interned, and tortured. They didn’t strike over indefinite detentions or even over Bloody Sunday. They knew all those things helped their cause. They went on hunger strike because the British government was going to make them look like criminals.

If you fear Islamic terrorists, let investigators do their job and find the people who would harm the public. This is a problem that will be solved over decades of diligent investigation, sitting on wiretaps, infiltrating cells, and prosecuting dangerous people. Distorting the domestic criminal justice system out of hysteria over potential attacks will make martyrs out of detainees and torture victims and encourage a broader spectrum of people to violence.

Preventive Detention: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Glenn Greenwald writes,

By all accounts, the White House is going to unveil its proposal for indefinite detention within the next four to eight weeks, and it has begun dispatching proponents of that scheme to lay the rhetorical groundwork. In The Washington Post today, one of the proposal’s architects – Law Professor Robert Chesney, a member of Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force – showcased the trite and manipulative tactics that will be used by advocates of indefinite detention to win support for their radical program [anyone doubting that detention without trials is radical should recall that Obama’s own White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law”; New York Times reporter William Glaberson wrote that “Obama’s detention policy “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself”; Sen. Russ Feingold warned that it “violates basic American values,” “is likely unconstitutional,” and “is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world”; The New York TimesBob Herbert said that “Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention”; and the Obama policy’s most vigorous Congressional proponents are Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham].

According to Chesney, though, the real extremists are those “on the left” who oppose preventive detention; those who believe that radical liberties such as criminal charges, trials and due process are necessary before the state can put someone in a cage for life; those who agree with Thomas Jefferson that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Chesney insists that such people (these “leftists”) are (as always) the mirror images of the extremists on the Right, who “carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.” These two equally partisan, radical, extremist sides (i.e., those who believe in due process and trials and those who oppose them) are – sadly – “shrink[ing] the political space within which reasonable, sustainable policies [i.e., Chesney’s preventive detention scheme] might be crafted with bipartisan support.”

…This is how political debates are typically carried out in Washington by the Serious Centrists and Responsible Adults. Chesney writes an entire Op-Ed defending the soon-to-be-unveiled preventive detention policy without describing a single aspect of it. To Serious people, the substance of the policy is irrelevant. What matters is that anyone who opposes it is a radical, partisan, shrill extremist. Conversely, as long as the Obama administration stays somewhere in the middle of the two sides – between Tom Coburn and Russ Feingold – then it proves they are being sensible, moderate and responsible, regardless of how extreme and dangerous their proposal actually is, and regardless of how close to Coburn and as far from Feingold as they end up.

No system of justice is perfect. But it’s no improvement to decide that in certain cases we can just do better without one.

All that such a policy does is to move the act of judging back one level – and to locate it at the point where someone, somewhere decides that this particular case doesn’t get judged in the usual way. And so the accused gets “detention” rather than “trial, followed possibly by prison.” But we are still putting a person, and perhaps a dangerous person, in a cage, are we not? The acts of judging and of punishing are still there, and we have hidden them only from ourselves.

It is no improvement to shift the fundamental problem of justice to a different location – out of open courtrooms, out of review, out of established legal tradition – and into a shadowy realm where potentially anything goes. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that it is a step forward or a refinement in the criminal law to have its work done somewhere else, by someone else. The work goes on, and with it all of the associated dangers. Western legal philosophy has spent centuries forcing these dangers out into the open, so that we may confront them directly.

But oddly, Professor Chesney is actually right in one respect:

The problem is twofold. First, the national dialogue has been dominated by a pair of dueling narratives that together reduce the space available for nuanced, practical solutions that may require compromise from both camps. On the one hand, critics of the government’s policies promiscuously invoke the post-Sept. 11 version of the Imperial Presidency narrative, reflexively depicting security-oriented policies in terms of executive branch power aggrandizement (with de rigueur references to former vice president Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, David Addington; or Justice Department attorney John Yoo, if not all three). On the other hand, supporters of the government’s policies just as carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.

Second, individual issues in the debate over detention policy are often framed in stark and incompatible terms. Take, for example, the Guantanamo detainees, who are portrayed in some quarters as innocent bystanders to the last man and in other quarters as the “worst of the worst.” While both extremes are misleading, their influence is pervasive.

True enough. A reasonable middle position? Give the detainees trials in which they can individually prove their guilt or innocence. Surely they aren’t all guilty, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone claim that they are all innocent, either. The truth really is somewhere in between, and it just so happens that we already have a mechanism for sorting out muddled cases like these.

Civil Liberties and President Barack W. Bush?

It’s fair to say that civil liberties and limited government were not high on President George W. Bush’s priorities list.  Indeed, they probably weren’t even on the list.  Candidate Barack Obama promised “change” when he took office, and change we have gotten.  The name of the president is different.

Alas, the policies are much the same.  While it is true that President Obama has not made the same claims of unreviewable monarchical power for the chief executive–an important distinction–he has continued to sacrifice civil liberties for dubious security gains.

Reports the New York Times:

Civil libertarians recently accused President Obama of acting like former President George W. Bush, citing reports about Mr. Obama’s plans to detain terrorism suspects without trials on domestic soil after he closes the Guantánamo prison.

It was only the latest instance in which critics have argued that Mr. Obama has failed to live up to his campaign pledge “to restore our Constitution and the rule of law” and raised a pointed question: Has he, on issues related to fighting terrorism, turned out to be little different from his predecessor?

The answer depends on what it means to act like Mr. Bush.

As they move toward completing a review of their options for dealing with the detainees, Obama administration officials insist that there is a fundamental difference between Mr. Bush’s approach and theirs. While Mr. Bush claimed to wield sweeping powers as commander in chief that allowed him to bypass legal constraints when fighting terrorism, they say, Mr. Obama respects checks and balances by relying on — and obeying — Congressional statutes.

“While the administration is considering a series of options, a range of options, none relies on legal theories that we have the inherent authority to detain people,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said this week in response to questions about the preventive detention report. “And this will not be pursued in that manner.”

But Mr. Obama’s critics say that whether statutory authorization exists for his counterterrorism policies is just a legalistic point. The core problem with Mr. Bush’s approach, they argue, was that it trammeled individual rights. And they say Mr. Obama’s policies have not changed that.

“President Obama may mouth very different rhetoric,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He may have a more complicated process with members of Congress. But in the end, there is no substantive break from the policies of the Bush administration.”

The primary beneficiaries of constitutional liberties are not terrorist suspects, but the rest of us.  The necessary trade-offs are not always easy, but the president and legislators must never forget that it is a free society they are supposed to be defending.

Fixing Detention

The Obama administration performed another Friday afternoon Guantanamo news dump last week, indicating that it will probably maintain administrative military detention of combatants under a forthcoming executive order.

This is unnecessary executive unilateralism. As Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith point out in today’s Washington Post, this is a debate that ought to be held in Congress.

This would not be a tough push for Obama. The Obama administration already amended its claim of authority in a filing with the District Court for the District of Columbia, the judicial body sorting through the detainees remaining at Gitmo. Convincing Congress to ratify this decision should not be hard; the differences between the Bush administration’s “enemy combatant” criteria and what the Obama administration defines as “substantially supporting” Al Qaeda and the Taliban are minute. As I wrote in a previous post on detention definitions and decisions, the actions proscribed under these two standards and the activities constituting the “direct participation in hostilities” standard used in the case of Salim Hamdan are nearly identical.

The only positive news about the pending announcement is that the creation of a national security court specializing in detention decisions is probably not in the cards. As I have said before, national security court proposals play the propaganda game the way terrorists want to and often revive the prospect of domestic preventive detention of terror suspects, to include American citizens who would otherwise be charged with a substantive crime for domestic acts. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief opposing this practice in the Padilla case.