In the aftermath of the foiled Christmas Day bombing, the media and several of my former colleagues in Congress have challenged the Obama administration’s decision to try Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in federal court rather than by military commission. The administration’s decision, however, should be welcomed not criticized, as a clear affirmation of the strength and resiliency of our criminal justice system.
As a former member of Congress and former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. In my opinion, that magnificent document is far stronger than critics of the administration’s decision in the Abdulmutallab case consider it to be; and it provides a robust and fully adequate mechanism for ensuring justice is done and America protected against actual and would-be terrorists.
Trials of terrorism suspects like Abdulmutallab in traditional federal courts are not only consistent with the Constitution and our American values, but are also far more effective in achieving justice than their constitutionally flawed counterparts, the military commissions. Since 2001, nearly 200 terrorists have been convicted by way of our federal court system. Contrast that record with that of the military commissions, which have convicted only three low-level terrorists. Moreover, expensive and time-consuming legal challenges to the commissions continue to seriously hamper their effectiveness. Renewing the use of these commissions will ensure further delays and expense.
Those who oppose the decision to use our traditional criminal justice system are focused on instilling fear in the American people. In addition, assertions that more intelligence could have been extracted from Abdulmutallab had he been transferred to military custody are faulty as well as disconcerting. This perspective suggests that military interrogation should have been undertaken because “alternative methods” of interrogation (wink, wink) are permitted and would result in accurate and useable information. This scenario also implies that because Abdulmutallab was read Miranda rights and provided an attorney, we can attain no further information and that he would not talk to authorities. This simply is not the case. Authorities already have gained information from him and they are confident they will continue to learn information as the justice process unfolds.
Terrorism suspects should be brought down by the very thing they seek to destroy – American values. Thus, we should try them in the very federal courts that our U.S. Constitution established. Our country’s founders conferred upon the government the power to protect us from our enemies and to prosecute and detain those who violate our laws. They also created a system for ensuring that those efforts are conducted within the boundaries of the Constitution. It is time to face the fact that the military commissions system of trying and detaining terrorist suspects has failed. Now is the time to return to and reaffirm our faith in our constitutional criminal justice system.
While I support the administration’s decision to try Abdulmutallab in federal court, I remain troubled by its dedication to try other terror suspects in military commissions. That is why I have joined a bipartisan coalition of over 130 former diplomats, military officials, federal judges and prosecutors, and members of Congress, as well as bar leaders, national security and foreign policy experts, and family members of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in issuing “Beyond Guantanamo: A Bipartisan Declaration.” The Declaration sets forth constitutional principles for dealing with present and future terrorism suspects upon the closing of Guantanamo; namely, trying terrorism suspects in regular federal courts rather than military commissions, and rejecting indefinite detention without charges. These principles recognize and affirm that we can keep our country safe while still adhering to the rule of law and the values that are embodied in our Constitution; they have stood the test of time for over 200 years and should not be jettisoned as we move into the 21st Century.