I’ve been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy’s post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects. I share Gene’s bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush’s longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House. But I also think it’s worth stressing that the arguments being offered – both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally – aren’t very persuasive even if we suppose that they’re not politically motivated.
Two caveats. First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won’t always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing. Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we’ll need to use Abdulmutallab’s statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don’t seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.
Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don’t seem to share this concern that they won’t be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it’s consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to “lawyer up” – as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it – explicitly concluding that “the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent.”
Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case. Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative – perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training – but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation – family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It’s possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.
Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded “terrorists” begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that “we are at war” – but this is an analytically unhelpful observation. We’re engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don’t. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases – any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.
For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that “we’re at war” seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular. The controversial – and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular – decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.
This has largely backfired. But it’s important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don’t do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state. Better, when it’s compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.