The Ripon Forum

Volume 44, No. 1

Winter 2010 Issue

Dangerous Decision

By on October 23, 2014

Terrorists should be treated as enemy combatants, not criminal defendants

On Christmas Day, while many Americans were preparing to exchange gifts and enjoy Christmas dinner, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was preparing to attack America.

As Northwest flight 253 approached Detroit, Abdulmutallab left his row-19 window seat, went to the lavatory and assembled a bomb, the parts of which he had hidden in his underwear before boarding. After he returned to seat 19A, he ignited the device in an attempt to bring down the plane and murder hundreds onboard.

We got lucky. Despite Abdulmutallab’s planning and training by al-Qaeda leadership in Yemen, the terrorist failed in his attempt to fully detonate his weapon and explode the plane. But he did start a fire. Fortunately, it was quickly extinguished by vigilant passengers and flight crew, who also subdued the perpetrator.

If Abdulmutallab’s attack had been successful, he would have orchestrated the worst terrorist attack on America since September 11, 2001.

As troubled as I am by the fact that federal intelligence agencies failed to recognize Abdulmutallab as a threat and the fact that he was able to smuggle the device past airport screening, I also am troubled by the response of the Obama Administration.

Shortly after the plane safely landed, federal law enforcement officers took the al-Qaeda-trained Abdulmutallab into custody and informed him that he had the right to remain silent, which is exactly what he did. Then, federal prosecutors brought charges against him in federal criminal court.

Now, because of the Obama Administration’s decision to treat Abdulmutallab’s attack as a crime and charge him as a criminal in federal court (FBI Director Mueller acknowledged that “very senior people in the FBI had input”), we lost the opportunity to interrogate him in order to seek life-saving intelligence. We will not learn more about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group claiming responsibility for the Christmas Day attack. We will not learn where and how he obtained his explosive device and his training. We will not learn from him what other attacks against America are planned by AQAP.

Instead of arranging for Abdulmutallab to meet with our most well-trained interrogators, the Obama Administration arranged for this terrorist to meet with a well-trained lawyer.

Instead of arranging for Abdulmutallab to meet with our most well-trained interrogators, the Obama Administration arranged for this terrorist to meet with a well-trained lawyer.

Even though American lives are at risk, the Obama Administration’s decision sadly is not all that unexpected when you consider the Administration’s apparent belief that we can defeat international terrorism in the courtroom instead of on the battlefield.

If we are going to protect Americans in our international war on terror, Abdulmutallab and his fellow terrorists should face trial in military commissions, not in civilian courts.

Clearly and tragically, the Obama Administration sees things differently. A year ago, the President announced his decision to close Guantanamo Bay without any plan of how to do so. In November, he made what I believe to be one of the worst decisions by any president when he decided to move Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and four co-conspirators from Guantanamo to New York City for trial in civilian court. This ill-conceived decision – made without consulting any law enforcement officials in New York – will launch judicial proceedings that will surely drag on for years and cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The President’s decision also threatens to expose highly sensitive sources and methods used to gather intelligence, creates a platform for spewing anti-American propaganda to attract more jihadists, and could almost stretch the NYPD to its breaking point.

If we are going to protect Americans in our international war on terror, Abdulmutallab and his fellow terrorists should face trial in military commissions, not in civilian courts.

Transferring terrorists to lower Manhattan creates an enormous, unnecessary risk to the people who already live and work near the federal courthouse. The director of the Federal Protective Service — charged with protecting the courthouse — stated at a recent Committee on Homeland Security hearing that he does not have the resources to properly secure the facility during the trials while performing its normal duties.

It seems that every month we learn of a new Obama Administration plan to try terrorists in civilian court. In November, KSM and the others in New York; in December, Abdulmutallab in Detroit; this month, we see reports that the Bali nightclub bomber, for inexplicable reasons, may face trial in downtown Washington, DC.

The fact is that trial in civilian court is unnecessary. Last year, Congress established a meticulous forum — per the Military Commissions Act — to try terrorists captured on the battlefield as enemy combatants in military commissions at Guantanamo.

House Republicans are working to pass legislation to appropriately direct the Obama Administration in dealing with dangerous terrorists and keep them out of civilian court. For example, I co-sponsored the Keep Terrorists Out of America Act, a common-sense bill to prevent terrorists from being brought onto our soil. I have also co-sponsored the Terrorist Detention and Prosecution Act to ensure the President has clear authority to utilize military commissions to try terrorist captured in the U.S.

The Christmas Day attack was a wake-up call for many; my hope is that it awakened the Obama Administration to the need to treat terrorists as enemy combatants, not as defendants with criminal courts.

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Peter King represents the 3rd District of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security.

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