Republicans have sharply condemned the Obama administration's decision to try a Somali militant in the U.S. civilian court system, a move that has reignited the debate over how to treat terror suspects, the role of the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the prerogatives of Congress in setting policy.
Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame is being held on a nine-count indictment alleging that he supplied material support to terror groups, including Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Somali group Shabab. Warsame is accused of trying to broker a weapons deal between the groups as well. He was arrested April 19 and interrogated aboard a U.S. Navy ship in international waters before being charged this week in New York City and turned over to civilian authorities.
The dual approach, interrogation on the high seas then charges in a civilian court, was designed to “do an end run around specific congressional prohibitions on the transferring of terrorists detainees to the United States for civilian trials,” charged Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), a leading critic of the administration’s former plan to hold terror suspects at high-security facilities in Illinois and elsewhere in the United States.
President Obama had pledged to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but backed off from that plan in the face of congressional opposition. The move has left open the question of how to treat terror suspects and whether to grant them the type of broader rights they would have under the U.S. Constitution rather than the more limited rights a defendant has in the military system.
Republicans have generally pushed for the military system, arguing it allows for tougher questioning. Schock and other made the same point, pushing for the increased use of Guantanamo Bay, also known as Gitmo.
“Just like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has obviously recognized the vital necessity to be able to interrogate terrorists outside of the United States where they are not subject to the U.S. Constitution. Instead of interrogating this terrorist at our state-of-the–art holding facility at Gitmo, this administration is trying to have its cake and eat it too,” Schock said Thursday.
“They didn’t use Gitmo, they just kept the terror suspect on a U.S. Navy ship in international waters for two full months, but then decided to send him to the U.S. mainland for a civilian trial — something a series of congressional actions dating beyond last year have directly banned if the terrorist had been detained at Gitmo,” he said.
In a statement, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard P McKeon (R-Calif.) said the transfer “directly contradicts congressional intent and the will of the American people” and that it was “unacceptable” that Congress was informed only after Warsame had been moved.
While praising the Obama administration for turning to the civilian judicial system, Amnesty International was troubled by the time the suspect spent on the military vessel.
“Amnesty International welcomes the Obama administration’s decision to charge and prosecute Warsame’s case in U.S. federal court,” said Tom Parker, the group’s policy director for terrorism and human rights issues. “The United States’ criminal justice system is the most appropriate and best equipped venue to adjudicate such cases.
“However, the organization is greatly concerned by reports that Warsame spent more than two months in military detention on a U.S. naval vessel undergoing extrajudicial interrogation before his transfer to the United States. Warsame was not detained on a battlefield nor was he captured during combat. He should have been handed over to law enforcement officials at the earliest opportunity, not held as a military prisoner.
“Warsame’s detention on board a U.S. naval vessel has unfortunate echoes of the Bush administration’s practice of using U.S. Navy ships as black sites in which to hold ghost detainees. That fact alone will inevitably cast a long shadow over this case,” he said.
A letter written by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and signed by 42 colleagues advises Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder that Guantanamo Bay is the appropriate place for Warsame, who should have been “detained outside the United States, and, if necessary, be tried by a military commission.”