The Administration has ways of making terrorists not talk.The failed terrorist attack aboard Northwest Flight 253 is proving to be highly educational, not least about the Obama Administration and its pre-September 11 antiterror worldview. Yesterday, the White House reversed itself on repatriating Guantanamo detainees to chaotic Yemen, a step in the right direction. Now if it would only revisit its Ramzi Yousef standard for interrogating captured terrorists like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Ramzi Yousef, you may recall, was the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 who is now serving a life sentence in a supermax prison in Colorado. The Obama Administration likes to cite his arrest, conviction and imprisonment as a model for its faith that the criminal justice system is the best way to handle terrorist detainees.
"Our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists. The record makes that clear," said President Obama last May 21 at the National Archives. "Ramzi Yousef tried to blow up the World Trade Center. He was convicted in our courts and is serving a life sentence in U.S. prisons."
On June 9, 2009, the Justice Department repeated the claim in a fact sheet arguing for handling terrorists in criminal courts:
"1993 World Trade Center Bombing: After two trials, in 1993 and 1997, six defendants were convicted and sentenced principally to life in prison for detonating a truck bomb in the garage of the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring hundreds more. One of the defendants convicted at the second trial was Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the attack."
We now know that when Yousef was captured, in 1995, al Qaeda leaders were working feverishly to attack American targets. Yousef's uncle is none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 and one of Yousef's co-conspirators in the failed Bojinka plot to blow up airliners across the Pacific Ocean.
Yet as far as we know, Yousef told U.S. interrogators little or nothing about KSM's plots and strategy once he was in U.S. custody. This isn't surprising, since once he was in the criminal justice system Yousef was granted a lawyer and all the legal protections against cooperating with U.S. interrogators. To this day, we don't recall any official claim that Yousef has provided useful intelligence of the kind that KSM, Abu Zubaydah and other al Qaeda leaders later did when they were interrogated by the CIA.
All of this is directly relevant to the Administration's rash decision to indict Abdulmutallab on criminal charges immediately after his arrest in Detroit on Christmas weekend. The Nigerian jihadist could have been labeled an enemy combatant, detained indefinitely, and interrogated with a goal of discovering who he had met in Yemen, whether other plots are underway, and much else that might be relevant to preventing the next terror attempt. This is a far higher priority than convicting Abdulmutallab and sending him to jail.
John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism official, tried to defend the criminal indictment on the Sunday talk shows but mainly revealed the Administration's confusion about the law and the uses of interrogation. Asked by David Gregory on NBC's "Meet the Press" why Abdulmutallab wasn't named an enemy combatant, Mr. Brennan said, "Well, because, first of all, we're a country of laws, and what we're going to do is to make sure that we treat each individual case appropriately."
But there is nothing illegal about holding an enemy combatant indefinitely, as the Supreme Court has upheld and as the Obama Administration has argued in court.
When Mr. Gregory pressed about "additional intelligence that could be gleaned" by interrogation, Mr. Brennan replied:
"Well, first of all, we have different ways of obtaining information from individuals according to that criminal process. A lot of people, as they understand what they're facing and their lawyers recognize that there is advantage to talking to us in terms of plea agreements, we're going to pursue that. So—and we are continuing to look at ways that we can extract that information from him."
A plea agreement? Mr. Brennan seems to be saying that now that he has a public defender, Abdulmutallab has clammed up. But the Administration might be able to coax him to talk if it offers him a lower sentence or some kind of other legal concession, even though he tried to kill nearly 300 people aboard an American airliner.
In other words, because the Obama Administration is loath to interrogate terrorists outside the criminal justice system, our only lever to get them to talk is offering a legal reprieve. This is bizarre to say the least, and self-destructive if it turns out that Abdulmutallab has information that could help prevent future attacks.
Mr. Brennan's other defense on Sunday was that the Bush Administration also prosecuted terrorists as criminals on occasion, in particular shoe bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui. But Reid was captured only months after 9/11 when the system of military commissions wasn't in place, and Moussaoui's trial was a legal fiasco that took years to prosecute. In neither case did they provide intelligence that revealed anything close to what KSM did about al Qaeda.
The lesson of these cases, like that of Ramzi Yousef, is not that the criminal justice system can sometimes convict terrorists. It is that criminal prosecution is far less vital to U.S. security than is conducting the interrogations that can yield information that saves innocent lives.