Terrorists Are Criminals and Should be Tried in Civilian Court

Using the criminal justice system works and honors U.S. values.

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Anthony D. Romero is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The way some people are carrying on these days about the Obama administration's decision to handle would-be Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the criminal justice system, you'd think the Constitution was a new document they weren't used to yet. Or that applying it was optional. Or that it hasn't been used over and over again for suspected terrorists. The Obama administration's correct decision to treat Abdulmutallab as an accused criminal is required by law, has proven successful in collecting valuable intelligence, and is standard legal procedure used even by the Bush administration.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the government interrogates and prosecutes criminal suspects in its custody under a justice system that presumes innocence until guilt is proven. That provides for due process. And that allows for convictions and sentences we can trust exactly because those very protections are provided. Perhaps to their own dismay, terrorists are criminals, not warriors, and should be treated that way.

While the laws of war allow for the detention without trial of true battlefield captures until the "end of hostilities," those laws don't apply to terrorism suspects picked up far from any battlefield in a "war" that knows no geographical boundaries or discernible ending, despite both the Bush and Obama administrations' assertions to the contrary. They certainly don't apply to suspects like Abdulmutallab, who was captured in the United States.

Handling terrorism suspects in the criminal justice system is standard legal procedure; there is nothing radical or extraordinary about it, especially when dealing with those captured in the United States. Since 9/11, the United States has arrested and detained under criminal law all terrorism suspects, without exception, apprehended within its borders. The Bush administration itself adopted policies expressly endorsing this approach, with no backlash and no disastrous results. While the retort "George Bush did it, too" is not usually a reason to endorse counter­terrorism policy, that approach, in this case, was and remains the right one.

It's true that in two cases the Bush administration moved terrorist suspects captured on U.S. soil out of the criminal justice system and into military detention as "enemy combatants." Both suspects, though, were eventually moved back to the civilian system after serious legal and constitutional challenges. Both men, Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri, were convicted and are serving prison sentences.

When it comes to detainees captured on foreign soil, the Bush administration's disastrous record of torture, its minimal record of convictions in the military commissions, and the harm to our international standing—and, therefore, security—should speak for the disastrous results of bypassing our justice system.

Law enforcement agencies like the FBI have experienced professionals whose careers are devoted to skillful interrogation. They know how to gather intelligence lawfully and without "enhanced" torture techniques. The evidence they collect, unlike that collected illegally under the Bush administration, can be used to prosecute and convict terrorists. And those convictions can be trusted because proper procedure has been followed. This is not the case when we throw suspects into secret military detention, coerce statements that may or may not be true, and put them into a second-class system like military commissions.

The Abdulmutallab arrest is a case in point. Reports indicate he continues to provide valuable intelligence about his failed attempt to bomb an airliner and his terrorist connections, perhaps because he was subjected to skilled questioning and because law enforcement had the wealth of tools at its disposal that come with following the law. In fact, it is reported that bringing Abdulmutallab's family to see him, which would not have happened if he were in military custody and denied his rights, played a key role in his willingness to cooperate. In other words, he is being treated as a criminal defendant, and he is talking. Abdulmutallab is only one of dozens of suspected terrorists who have cooperated when in the criminal justice system.