American values v. Abdulmutallab
By James S. Brady and Richard A. Rossman as published in the Detroit Free Press
Critics of the Obama administration’s decision to try Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, arrested and charged as the Christmas Day bomber, and other terrorism suspects in federal court are trying again to employ failed Guantanamo policies.
They want Abdulmutallab designated an “enemy combatant,” transferred to military custody, interrogated and even indefinitely detained. They question whether our civilian law enforcement officers can obtain valuable information from terrorism suspects and whether our fellow citizens can fairly try and convict such suspects.
As former U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan, we are confident in the ability of the federal justice system to handle the trial of Abdulmutallab and any other terrorism suspect. During our time at the U.S. Department of Justice, we never felt the need to stray from our traditional justice system to prosecute those responsible for heinous crimes. There is no need to start now..
Using indefinite detention and military commissions constitutes a troubling departure from our constitutional principles. As U.S. Attorneys, we took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and to protect the core values of our society. Critics of using our federal justice system to try terrorism suspects propose to simply cast aside our values in exchange for the appearance, but not the reality, of safety.
In fact, the military commission process has proven to be anything but successful. Since their institution in 2001, these proceedings have been subject to extensive and costly litigation. Constitutional challenges, some ending with resounding rejection of the commission process by the U.S. Supreme Court, have delayed justice for thousands of Americans affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That same commission process has led to only three low-level convictions.
By contrast, over the past nine years, trials in our federal court system have resulted in nearly 200 terrorism convictions. There have been 65 times more terrorist convictions in federal courts than in commissions.
Those who propose transferring Abdulmutallab to military custody for interrogation ignore that he reportedly proffered valuable information immediately upon his arrest. They imply that military interrogation will use “alternative methods of interrogation” that will therefore elicit more accurate and useable information.
We find this implication extremely disturbing.
First, abusive methods of interrogation are not consistent with our values and constitutional principles, and treating some criminal cases differently from others would ultimately result in fundamental changes to our criminal justice system.
Second, they do not work; traditional interrogation techniques have repeatedly been shown to elicit more, and more accurate, information.
We applaud the administration’s decision to try Abdulmutallab in federal court, even while we remain troubled by its November announcement that it will try other terror suspects in the flawed military commission process.
It is because we need not choose between national security and traditional American values that we 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.
Organized by the Constitution Project and Human Rights First, 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 charge. 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 – principles that have stood the test of time for over 200 years.
We have every confidence in the expertise and dedication of the federal prosecutors, law enforcement officers and federal judges charged with handling this, and any other, terrorism case. Our country’s founders created a justice system that enables us to prosecute and detain those who do us harm.
We must not play into the hands of the terrorists and cast aside the core values we are fighting to protect. Subject terrorism suspects to what they hate most: democracy, due process, and the rule of law.
James S. Brady served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan from 1977-1981. He is in private legal practice, focusing in criminal litigation, with Miller Johnson PLC in Grand Rapids.
Richard A. Rossman served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 1980-1981 and as chief of staff of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice from 1998-1999. He is retired from the active practice of law and is the president of the National Association of Former United States Attorneys.