In 1966, the Supreme Court instructed police, in Miranda v. Arizona, to tell arrested suspects that "you have the right to remain silent." But, in fact, you don’t.
Rather, police — or more to the point of current debate, federal agents interrogating suspected terrorists — can skip the famous Miranda warnings and even use some degree of coercion to extract a confession, all quite legally. Indeed, you can even be jailed for refusing to answer questions after being granted immunity from any prosecution.
The problem for law enforcement — especially in the terrorism context — is that any statements obtained from an arrested suspect without Miranda warnings, or by directly coercing an involuntary confession, ordinarily cannot be used against the person in a criminal case.
A less familiar but perhaps more important problem is that current federal law also bars the use of most statements made more than six hours after a suspect’s arrest without first taking him to a magistrate judge for a "presentment" hearing. In a terrorism incident, such an interruption could derail a promising effort to get information about co-conspirators and planned attacks.
The combined effect is to force officials to make an unnecessarily difficult choice: They can put terrorism suspects through the kind of prolonged, uninterrupted interrogation that is their best hope of preventing future attacks. Or they can maximize the chance of a successful prosecution. But they can’t count on doing both, unless they get lucky.
This dilemma creates unhealthy incentives either to shun aggressive interrogation — which the Obama administration has sometimes seemed all too ready to do — or to subject suspects to the indefinite military detention, interrogation, and trial that the Bush administration favored.
Corrected at 3:00 p.m. on March 12.
For far too long, public debate about terrorism has been dominated by right-wing and left-wing ideologues. In this corner, the Cheneys and their allies. In that corner, the American Civil Liberties Union, gonzo House Democrats and academics, and their allies. In neither corner, common sense.
Typifying the quality of the debate was the ACLU’s wildly overstated full-page ad in The New York Times on March 7 darkly suggesting that President Obama would be subverting "our Constitution and due process" if he abandons his administration’s politically toxic plan to move the prosecution of five accused 9/11 conspirators from a military commission to a federal civilian court. The centerpiece of the ad was a drawing of Obama’s face morphing into that of George W. Bush — who seems to be more hated in ACLU-land than Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile, hard-right conservatives including Liz Cheney and William Kristol have been running a deeply misguided campaign, including a video emblazoned with "DOJ: Department of Jihad," to smear as disloyal several lawyers now working in the Obama Justice Department. They previously represented Guantanamo detainees or sought due process protections for people who might be innocent.
The best hope for replacing this sterile right-left shout-fest with a bipartisan, commonsense approach to terrorism may be the diligent efforts of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to find common ground with the Obama administration. And the time is ripe for the president to realize that a grand bargain with Graham — including comprehensive legislation on how to handle suspected terrorists, closing the Guantanamo prison camp, and related issues — could help him recover from blunders such as seeking to try the 9/11 defendants in Manhattan.
Suppose that your child is being held in a secret location by kidnappers who threaten to kill her within two hours unless they’re paid a ransom of $100,000 that you can’t raise. Suppose further that the FBI has just captured one of the kidnappers.
Would you want the agents to say this? "You have the right to remain silent. If you give up the right to remain silent, anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you desire an attorney and cannot afford one, an attorney will be obtained for you before police questioning."
And would you want them to stop asking questions the second the suspect asks for a lawyer?
Neither the Fifth Amendment nor Miranda forbids aggressive interrogation to protect public safety.
Now imagine a more realistic scenario, along the lines of Al Qaeda’s aborted 1995 "Bojinka" plot: After learning that Qaeda terrorists with virtually undetectable bombs are planning to blow up 12 airliners carrying almost 4,000 passengers very soon, the FBI captures one of them. Would you want him Mirandized?
The questions answer themselves.
Reasonable people disagree about how much coercion interrogators should use to extract potentially lifesaving information from terrorists. (None at all, President Obama unwisely ordered soon after taking office.)
But no reasonable person could doubt that starting out with "you have the right to remain silent" is not the way to save lives.
Yet this is essentially the policy into which the Obama administration has locked itself by insisting that it did the right thing when it read Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Christmas Day bomber, his Miranda rights after only 50 minutes of questioning and a hospital visit.
I have instructed my subordinates that suspected Al Qaeda terrorists captured anywhere in the world should be interrogated extensively — with safeguards against abuse — before any Miranda warnings or access to lawyers. This approach is legal and it may save lives. Although the specific evidence obtained might in some cases be inadmissible in court, the suspects will be prosecuted based on other evidence once interrogation is completed.
This is a major departure from the established policy of all past administrations, of the FBI, and until now of my administration. Nobody should fault those who diligently followed established policy in handling the suspect in the Christmas Day airplane bombing attempt. But I have decided that my new policy is more likely to obtain critical intelligence from captured terrorists.
President Obama should say something like this, something fairly dramatic, to counter the surging Republican campaign to brand him soft on terrorism.
He already faces a bipartisan push to block civilian trials of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators and to kill his plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Whether he wins or loses those battles, he risks permanent political damage unless he dispels the soft-on-terrorism charge.
The charge is unfair. But it is gaining traction because of two glaring mistakes.
One was the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department to advise Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab after only 50 minutes of interrogation that he had a right to stop talking — which he did. This blunder was compounded by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s fantasy that "the system worked," by Obama’s fatuous assertion that Abdulmutallab was "an isolated extremist," and by Holder’s unconvincing defense of the initial mistake in a five-page letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on February 3.
Dick Cheney has it backward. The problem with President Obama’s counter-terrorism policy isn’t its (rather limited) divergence from the Bush-Cheney approach. The problem is Obama’s emulation of one of the biggest Bush-Cheney mistakes.
That is relying too much on unilateral presidential power and judicial improvisation rather than seeking new legislation — as two notable judicial opinions have recently urged — to legitimize and regulate the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects outside the ordinary criminal process.
The case of the Nigerian who authorities say tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day has helped expose two reasons why this presidential unilateralism is intolerable.
First, treating terrorism suspects captured in America as ordinary criminal defendants from the moment of arrest unnecessarily rules out aggressive, incommunicado interrogation that might disrupt other plots and thus save lives. New legislation could legitimize questioning such people without lawyers for a limited period (maybe 10 days, or longer in exceptional cases) before launching the criminal process.
Second, Obama’s January 5 suspension of the transfer of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Yemen — where the Christmas bombing plot was hatched — is the latest sign that he will perpetuate for years the George W. Bush-created regime of long-term detention without trial. Obama acted even though he has recognized this approach to be inconsistent with "our values and our Constitution" unless legitimized by careful congressional, as well as judicial, oversight.
The attacks by Cheney and other conservative critics on the administration’s handling of the case of would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab focus on the decision to treat him as an ordinary criminal defendant, with the usual Miranda rights, lawyers counseling silence, and all the rest.
"A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals," President Obama said on April 16, "and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past."
But is it really a false choice? It’s certainly tempting to think so. The fashionable assumption that coercive interrogation (up to and including torture) never saved a single life makes it easy to resolve what otherwise would be an agonizing moral quandary.
The same assumption makes it even easier for congressional Democrats, human-rights activists, and George W. Bush-hating avengers to call for prosecuting and imprisoning the former president and his entire national security team, including their lawyers. The charge: approving brutal methods — seen by many as illegal torture — that were also blessed, at least implicitly, by Nancy Pelosi, now the House speaker, and other Intelligence Committee members in and after 2002.
But there is a body of evidence suggesting that brutal interrogation methods may indeed have saved lives, perhaps a great many lives — and that renouncing those methods may someday end up costing many, many more.
To be sure, the evidence in the public record is not conclusive. It comes mainly from Bush appointees and Central Intelligence Agency officials with records to defend and axes to grind. There is plenty of countervailing evidence coming from critics who have less access to the classified information that tells much of the story and have their own axes to grind. There are also plausible arguments for renouncing coercive interrogation even if it does save some lives.
Before 9/11, judges had no power to entertain writs of habeas corpus (petitions for release) by enemy fighters taken into custody by U.S. forces overseas.
Justice Robert Jackson spelled out this rule in a landmark 1950 decision, Johnson v. Eisentrager: "We are cited to no instance where a court, in this or any other country where the writ [of habeas corpus] is known, has issued it on behalf of an alien enemy who at no relevant time and in no stage of his captivity has been within its territorial jurisdiction. Nothing in the text of the Constitution extends such a right, nor does anything in our statutes."
That might still be the law had the Bush administration given the hundreds of suspected "enemy combatants" whom it sent to its Guantanamo Bay prison camp in and after 2002 a fair opportunity to show that they were innocents seized and held by mistake, as many apparently were, an almost inevitable feature of this war against terrorists who masquerade as civilians.
But instead, the Bush team seized on its presumed freedom from judicial oversight, spurned the advice of military lawyers, and denied the detainees any semblance of due process, while subjecting some of them to brutal interrogations.
These bad policies have led to muddled law. Understandably offended by President Bush’s approach and the black eye that it was giving America overseas, the Supreme Court deep-sixed Johnson v. Eisentrager and ruled for detainees in three cases culminating in a 5-4 decision last June asserting broad judicial power to hear petitions for release from Guantanamo.
In the process, the justices struck down parts of two recent acts of Congress and assumed unprecedented, open-ended, and potentially disruptive power to oversee the elected branches’ conduct of war. They left it to the U.S. District and Appeals Courts in the District of Columbia to make up detailed rules on an ad hoc basis.
President-elect Obama’s announcement of his (mostly) stellar national security team coincides with the release this week of a bipartisan commission report with this chilling assessment of the most important challenge that team faces: "Without greater urgency and decisive action by the world community, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
Perhaps the commission, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and other experts who have issued similarly dramatic warnings are crying wolf. Perhaps the likelihood of any terrorist group getting a nuclear bomb is "vanishingly small," as Ohio State political science professor John Mueller has forcefully argued. Or perhaps it’s closer to 30 percent over the next 10 years, as Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Kennedy School estimated last month in "Securing the Bomb 2008."
Our way of life may well depend on catching nuclear or biological terrorists before they can strike.
Whatever the odds, if terrorists ever smuggle a crude, Hiroshima-sized nuke into, say, Manhattan, the immediate death toll could exceed 500,000. And the ensuing panic could threaten our constitutional system, spur evacuations of major cities, kill international trade, bring the worst economic depression in history, and perhaps usher in a new dark age worldwide.
This prospect puts into perspective the efforts of many human-rights activists, Obama supporters, and journalists to weaken essentially all of the government’s most important tools for disabling terrorists before they can strike.
When it comes to national security-fighting wars and defending the nation-the courts have long deferred to the president and Congress. After 9/11, the Bush administration counted on judges staying out of the way as it figured out what to do with suspects rounded up in the War on Terror. The administration built a prison at the U.S. Navy base at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, because it was secure, but also because administration lawyers figured (and legal precedents suggested) that American courts had
When it comes to national security-fighting wars and defending the nation-the courts have long deferred to the president and Congress. After 9/11, the Bush administration counted on judges staying out of the way as it figured out what to do with suspects rounded up in the War on Terror. The administration built a prison at the U.S. Navy base at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, because it was secure, but also because administration lawyers figured (and legal precedents suggested) that American courts had no power to meddle there. Just as the true believers in the Bush White House have done so often, they overreached.
As Charles Fried, solicitor general in the Reagan administration, has reportedly put it, the Bush administration "badly overplayed a winning hand." Bush and his advisers so flouted ordinary, and old, ideas of justice and liberty that they put the Supreme Court in an impossible position: either rubber-stamp denials of due process to detainees who say they were seized by mistake, or step in and create a new set of problems by making rules on a slow, messy, case-by-case basis. In effect, that’s what happened last week when the court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush. If ever there was proof of the adage "hard cases make bad law," this is it.
Amid the new round of headlines about the Bush administration’s use of extremely harsh methods–some say torture–to interrogate suspected terrorists, the most important question is getting the least attention.
That question is how we should revise our laws to govern future interrogations, especially those of newly captured terrorism suspects who seem especially likely to have potentially lifesaving information.
Debate currently focuses on whether evidence obtained through highly coercive methods should be used in military commission trials of those accused of being Qaeda leaders,
and whether President Bush and his top national security aides should be investigated for war crimes for approving those methods.
My answer is no to both questions. But looking forward, the key to a decent, effective, democratically legitimate interrogation policy is for policy makers and citizens to think hard about an agonizing choice.
What would we want done the next time the CIA catches someone such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM, in official shorthand)? There is no good answer. But we should be able to improve on the disastrous legacy of Bush, whose presidency brought us the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the "renditions" of at least two wrongly suspected men to be tortured in Syria and Afghanistan.
The March 2003 capture of KSM in Pakistan was as close to the hypothetical "ticking bomb" situation as we have come in the real world. Although the CIA did not know of any imminent threat, it did know that KSM was the architect of the 9/11 attacks and was Al Qaeda’s chief of operations. As such, he probably knew more than anyone else alive about any planned attacks and where to find other key terrorists.