Failed airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is yet another pawn in the terror war. Terror suspects take center stage not just in how they're prosecuted, but how the terrorism fight is being waged. President Obama took the predictable heat from Bush counter terrorism officials, top GOP senators and Joe Lieberman when he decided to try Abdulmutallab in an open, civilian court. Obama's decision also goes against the grain of public opinion which opposes civilian trials for terror suspects.
Lieberman and the GOP leaders say that Abdulmutallab and others like him will get the legal and constitutional protections that war combatants should not get. Prosecutors and investigators, they say, can't wring information out of him that could be used to hunt down other terrorists.
The argument is bogus and dangerous. Federal courts are tightly secured. Federal judges and prosecutors have ample legal tools to prevent any classified information from slipping out, and federal prosecutors have a well established track record of convicting terror suspects. Judges routinely impose tough sentences on them. The opposition to a civilian court trial for Abdulmutallab rests on the presumption that he is guilty, and that he has secrets to tell, and will tell them, in a military court, but not in a civilian court. The charges against Abdulmutallab are criminal charges, and as with any defendant charged with a crime, he's presumed innocent. The aim of a criminal trial is not to wring real or imagined secrets out of a suspect, but to get a conviction; a conviction that sticks, and a prison sentence that guarantees that he doesn't waltz out of prison anytime soon. Civilian trials even for men such as Abdulmutallab send two crucial messages. The legal system can get convictions without trampling on defendant's rights. It is a shield against legal abuses and is a firm deterrent to serious crime.
The notion that a military court can get secrets out of Abdulmutallab is pure conjecture. Presuming that he had any secrets to tell the only conceivable way that he'd tell them would be to subject him to enhanced techniques or less politely, harsh interrogation techniques, or let's call it what it is, torture. A Rasmussen poll shows that a majority of Americans think torture should be used against Abdulmutallab. But studies have shown that torture doesn't work. Terror suspects will lie, exaggerate, embellish, invent, and concoct stories to make their interrogators stop the abuse. Their interrogators are more than happy to gloat over extracting false or fabricated confessions because getting any information out of a suspect no matter how far-fetched and useless serves as rationale and justification for their dirty work. The paltry information plucked out of suspects beaten, water boarded, subject to cold, heat, and sleep deprivation, and round the clock interrogation at Gitmo is ample proof that torture as an effective technique is a flop.
Using torture doesn't just result in collecting piles of nonsense. It also creates the false sense that getting worthless information actually is the best way to prevent future terror attacks. Abdulmutallab is a good example of that. If as alleged, he was radicalized, trained, and given his marching orders by Al Qeada in Yemen, then with all the terror suspects that the US has rounded up and endlessly grilled why wasn't he fingered and scooped up with the others?
The Military Commissions that the US set up in 2001 to try suspected terrorists has hardly been a model of criminal justice efficiency. The commissions have been plagued by legal shifts, confusion, conflicts, procedural delays, and trial postponements. The confusion has been compounded by Congressional changes in the Military Commissions Act of 2009.
The clamor to scrap civilian trials for terror suspects has less to do with hysteria over security, cracking terror networks and putting terrorists away for good, than the fierce political gamesmanship that the terrorism war has long been notorious for. Bush and Congressional Democrats fought and now Obama and Congressional Republicans fight a protracted political battle over shuttering Guantanamo, the shameless political use terrorism color code warnings, the provisions of the Patriot Act, intelligence agency operations, the Iraq and Afghan wars, and civilian versus military courts. Abdulmutallab has just exacerbated their fight.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.