The new law we need to tackle terror

April 23, 2013 

— When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested Friday night, the celebration was instantly overtaken by an ideologically charged debate. Liberals argued that the government must respect Tsarnaev’s constitutional rights, by which they meant that he should be treated the same as any ordinary criminal suspect – informed of his Miranda rights, supplied with a lawyer, presented to court as soon as possible. The subtext was that the treatment of Tsarnaev would refute yet again the hated Bush administration’s claim that it needed expansive war powers to fight terrorists.

Conservatives by contrast, notably Republican Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued that the government should classify Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant and thus deprive him of the rights of ordinary criminal suspects. For the left, the Tsarnaevs are examples of “vulnerable Muslims” driven to extremes by President Barack Obama’s immoral drone war; for the right, they are foot soldiers in a civilizational war.

The Obama administration, as always, threaded the needle. The government declared that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would not be classified as an enemy combatant, but also would not be read his Miranda rights under the administration’s broad interpretation of the “public safety” exception.

The Supreme Court has recognized a relatively narrow exception, which allows into court statements made before the Miranda warning as long as an immediate threat to public safety exists (like a bomb planted somewhere). The Obama interpretation would allow in statements taken before a Miranda warning as long as the government determines the usual warning would prevent the government from obtaining “valuable and timely” intelligence.

No court has yet approved the Obama administration’s interpretation of the public safety exception. Tsarnaev’s interrogators risk a court would not allow a jury to hear statements he makes.

As Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft argues, this may not matter for Tsarnaev given the other evidence of his guilt. But it will be important for investigations of future terrorist attacks. Others have complained that Obama has jumped the gun and accused the Tsarnaevs of terrorism before it has been proved that they had terrorist motives.

For liberals, the Constitution is a fetish to be stroked at times of peril; it will protect us, whatever the stakes. They forget that criminal procedural rights were cobbled together over decades by fallible judges responding to the needs of the time. What might have been appropriate during the civil rights era, when police used criminal law to suppress protesters and torment African-Americans, may not be appropriate for an age of terror.

Graham and McCain’s approach responds to the new threats posed by terror, but it’s at once too risky under current law and insufficient for addressing the problem. There is at best uncertain legal authority to detain a U.S. citizen on American soil as an enemy combatant and to deprive him of Miranda and related rights. And so the government risks rendering any statements made by Dzhokhar useless at trial.

And if it turns out that he has no link with al-Qaida, it will be impossible to try him before the hopeless military commissions, which can be used only for members of that terrorist group or associated groups. In addition, by linking detention and interrogation powers to war powers, the Republican senators fail to address terrorist threats posed by non-Muslims like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.


There is a better approach. Imagine a law that grants police broad but temporary detention and interrogation powers in the aftermath of a mass killing in a public location – in other words, any potentially terrorist act. The police must first seek permission from a judge who will determine whether the act of violence satisfies the criteria, spelled out in the law, about the magnitude and circumstances of the attack. The police may then detain for one week, say, those whom they reasonably believe responsible for the attack and interrogate them without informing them of their Miranda rights.

Perhaps, the term can be renewed for good cause. The government would provide these detainees with lawyers who would not be allowed to meet with them, but could appeal the initial judicial order and examine and challenge before a judge the government’s evidence that the detainee is responsible for the attack. The judge would have the power to revoke the detention power if it is no longer necessary, and to order the release of the detainees if they cannot be tied to the attack.

Statements obtained from the detainee could be used against him in trial, unless they were obtained through coercion, intimidation or deception. Conviction would require corroborating evidence.

The isolation of terrorist suspects is hardly a new idea; it was used effectively in the 1970s by Germany, Italy and other European democracies to defeat terrorist groups like the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigade.

Here and now in the U.S., there are several advantages to this approach. It treats in the same manner anyone who engages in terrorism or mass killing and does not single out Muslims, who are burdened by the legacy of the declaration of war against al-Qaida. It gives the police broad powers to deal with cases of extraordinary violence without granting them similar powers for ordinary criminal investigations. It avoids any reference to war or martial law, skirting the massive legal and political complexities associated with war powers.

And because Congress would make the rules, and judges would oversee the system, the courts would likely hold it constitutional.

MCT Information Services

Eric Posner is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He wrote this for Slate.

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