Fed’s handling of Tsarnaev draws criticism (and praise)

After capturing the second Boston Marathon bombing suspect on Friday, the FBI decided to invoke the public safety exception to the Miranda requirement. This decision has generated much debate about the rights that should be afforded to terrorism suspects, whether a distinction should be drawn between foreign and domestic terrorist suspects, and who qualifies as which.

According to the ACLU, while authorities should be able to question Tsarnaev about imminent threats, using the public safety exception “to create the case against the suspect” would be “wholly inappropriate and unconstitutional.”  In this they are absolutely correct. This exception was created not as an investigatory tool, but as an excuse for officers who, under pressing circumstances and in the heat of the moment, ask a question of a suspect, such as “where is the bomb?” or “which way did your accomplice run?” It was a failsafe to allow officers who ask questions with the sole purpose of ensuring public safety before read the suspect their rights to still be able to introduce the suspects responses in court. It was not intended to create a tactic by which police could intentionally delay mirandizing suspects.

Relatedly,  several Republican politicians have argued that Tsarnaev should be officially labelled an “enemy combatant” in order to remove procedural hurdles to national security investigations. For example, as an enemy combatant, Tsarnaev would not be entitled to the a lawyer during interrogation. These lawmakers hope that by removing the Miranda warning and its attendant rights, the authorities may be  better able to probe possible links to al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

Of course, there is as yet no indication that there are any such links, and if there are, the 4th and 5th Amendments have generally not gotten in the way of finding out. For example, “Millennium Bomber”Ahmed Ressam gave up all of his contacts shortly after being caught and interrogated by the FBI under full Constitutional protection. In fact, facing 130 years in prison, he sang like a bird for 4 years while his sentencing was put on hold. (The uber-liberal Ninth Circuit has since ruled that Ressam’s 22-year sentence was too lenient, and placed an effective floor of 65 year on the sentence.)

But this has not stopped some Republican lawmakers from claiming the need to apply extraordinary measures to “foreign” terrorists. However, they seem to have hit a snag here, since Tsarnaev is a naturalized US citizen, not that they let this get in the way. In fact, Senator Lindsey Graham went so far as to advocate using racial and religious profiling to to determine if Constitutional protections should apply:

“You can’t hold every person who commits a terrorist attack as an enemy combatant, I agree with that. But you have a right, with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with Al Qaeda — I think you have a reasonable belief to go down that road, and it would be a big mistake not to go down that road. If we didn’t hold him for intelligence-gathering purposes, that would be unconscionable.”

So, according to Senator Graham. if they are Chechen and/or Muslim, screw their rights.

Discrimination aside, Sen. Graham seems to have forgotten that we don’t need to hold Tsarnaev for intelligence gathering purposes, since he’s already being held for criminal prosecution. This gives the FBI and other Federal investigators ample access to him for intelligence gathering purposes.

Indeed, holding Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant could jeopardize the government’s ability to try him, since Military Commissions have no jurisdiction over US citizens, and the latter trying him in civilian courts could trigger problems with speedy trial protections and admissibility of the evidence obtained without 4th and 5th Amendment protections.

For additional commentary on the Tsarnaev case, the following were collected by Fordham’s Center on National Security:

New York Times: “Mr. Graham’s reckless statement makes a mockery of the superb civilian police work that led to the suspect’s capture….Fortunately the Obama administration has ignored the posturing and declared that Mr. Tsarnaev, like all citizens and even alien terrorists captured on American soil, will be tried in the federal courts.”

Wall Street Journal: “The flap over reading [Tsarnaev] his Miranda rights is a largely irrelevant distraction. … The important security issue isn’t convicting Dzhokhar but finding out what he knows that might prevent a future attack or break up a terror network. This is where naming him an enemy combatant would be useful.”

New Yorker: Does the public exception to the Miranda “grant the police a limited ability to ask where a bomb is or which way an accomplice ran, and use the answers in court? Or is it a free forty-eight-hour questioning coupon the government gets for calling someone a terrorist?”

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

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