Somali terrorism suspect Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame arrived in New York Monday to be tried in civilian court. The Justice Department says Warsame was a leader of the Somali militant Islamist group Al-Shabab. Warsame was arrested by the US military in April in the Gulf and was taken to a naval vessel where he was interrogated for two months before being brought to New York. Anchor Marco Werman talks with Matthew Waxman, associate professor at Columbia Law School, New York.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The Obama administration today defended its handling of terrorism suspect, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame. The administration flew the Somali detainee to New York to face a civilian trial. Warsame is allegedly a fighter for the Somali militant group, Al-Shabab, and has ties to al-Qaeda. The suspect was arrested by the US military in April somewhere in the Persian Gulf region. He was then held aboard a US Navy ship for over two months before being brought to New York. Matthew Waxman is a former Pentagon advisor on detention issues. First, Mr. Waxman, tell us who Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame is and what he’s charged with specifically.
Matthew Waxman: Well, some of the facts are still coming out. We only have a limited picture of what the US government knows of him. It appears that he’s affiliated with, an operational member of Al-Shabab, the militant group in Somalia. And also, according to the government, has strong ties to al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula.
Werman: Now, Warsame was interrogated by the military on a ship for two months; that seems highly unusual and I mean, is it even legal? It sounds more like a floating prison than an interrogation.
Waxman: Well, it is unusual that he was held on a naval vessel for that period of detention. On the other hand, for a decade now the United States has been arguing consistently across presidential administrations that as a matter of both domestic law and international law it is engaged in an ongoing war or armed conflict with al-Qaeda; as a result it can legally capture and hold for the duration of hostility enemy fighters in that war; meaning those fighting on behalf of enemy forces — al-Qaeda and its affiliates and allies.
Werman: Mm, now having Warsame tried in civilian court is highly controversial here in the US. Tell us why it is and what is the Obama administration’s argument for trying him in civilian court, and what’s the congressional republicans’ argument against it?
Waxman: Yeah, this case certainly comes at a tense time in negotiations between the White House and congressional republicans about detention law generally. You have congressional republicans wanting to prohibit the use of civilian criminal justice for terrorism suspects captured abroad like this, and arguing that they should only be held abroad, perhaps at Guantanamo, and maybe prosecuted for war crimes in military commissions.
The Obama administration argues that Guantanamo should be closed and that the government should have some flexibility to choose among a variety of legal tools for handling terrorism suspects on a case-by-case basis. And the congressional republicans are trying to restrict the kinds of options that the government could use in cases like that.
Werman: Well, you’re a law professor now and you think about these things a lot. Who’s right here?
Waxman: Well, I think the Obama administration is right on that point. In my view the congressional republican effort to restrict the president’s options and basically take civilian criminal prosecution off the table is misguided, both as a matter of principle and also even from a counter-terrorism perspective. I think as this case shows, each case has its own complexities, difficulties, and I don’t think there is any one-size-fits-all approach that’s gonna be appropriate across all terrorism cases. And I think its dangerous to restrict the president’s flexibility in cases like this.
Werman: Apparently, Warasame was not treated as a civilian detainee from the get-go and was perhaps not even read his Miranda rights. Would that pose a legal challenge in civilian court?
Waxman: That’s one of the issues that likely to come up. From what we know, his period of initial detention and interrogation, lasting a couple of months, was not done with his Miranda rights having been read; in other words, without having been given an opportunity to consult with a lawyer to remain silent and so forth. One open question is to what degree do constitutional rights like Miranda apply abroad to terrorism suspects like this who are held in military custody, and that’s I think one of the legal issues that’s likely to arise in the subsequent prosecution that’s being brought. The stakes are high. If courts end up holding that Miranda and other constitutional rights do apply quite broadly to these kinds of foreign suspects picked up abroad, that could really impact future terrorism prosecutions and the kinds of choices that this president and subsequent presidents will make in cases like this.
Werman: Matthew Waxman, associate professor of law at Columbia University in New York, thanks so much.
Waxman: Thanks very much for having me.
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