White House Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan appears to have become the point man for the administration's pushback against GOP criticism on national security. Following his criticism of Republicans on the Sunday shows this weekend, Brennan writes an op-ed for USA Today in which the former CIA official launches a number of critiques that almost sound like they come from civil libertarians and human-rights activists.
Brennan reiterates several key facts: Failed underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab was mirandized after he stopped talking; mirandizing does not interfere with intelligence collection; Jose Padilla and Saleh al-Mari did not cooperate while they were held in military custody; suspects in military custody are still provided with lawyers; and shoe bomber Richard Reid was mirandized moments after being apprehended. The handling of the failed underwear bombing was in accordance with standard practice going back to the prior administration.
Brennan also hits the GOP for acting as an unofficial branch of al-Qaeda's PR operation, minimizing their failures and inflating their successes:
Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda. Terrorists are not 100-feet tall. Nor do they deserve the abject fear they seek to instill. They will, however, be dismantled and destroyed, by our military, our intelligence services and our law enforcement community. And the notion that America's counterterrorism professionals and America's system of justice are unable to handle these murderous miscreants is absurd.
The point of trying terrorists in civilian courts instead of military commissions is that civilian courts diminish the political symbolism of their actions -- treating them as criminals highlights the hypocrisy of murderers posing as the devout. Treating terrorists not captured on the battlefield like "enemy combatants" elevates them to the level of soldiers. It implies a parity with American servicemembers, and a right to the use of force against innocent people where there is none. Treating terrorists like warriors gives them power, while treating them like criminals takes it away. The reasons for trying terrorism cases in civilian court should be obvious.
Which is what makes this point from Brennan so remarkable:
Cries to try terrorists only in military courts lack foundation. There have been three convictions of terrorists in the military tribunal system since 9/11, and hundreds in the criminal justice system — including high-profile terrorists such as Reid and 9/11 plotter Zacarius Moussaoui.
The administration has never made this key point, which is one groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have been making forever. The military commissions are ineffective, which calls into question why they're being used at all. The reason you haven't seen this argument from the administration is that it muddles the argument for reviving the military commissions in the first place.
The public discourse on terrorism has been so distorted though, that the White House can rely on the mainstream press to avoid even questioning the underlying premise of trying suspected terrorists in military courts. It's just taken as a given, even though it's a radical departure from precedent that even former Bush lawyers have warned may be unconstitutional. How is it not "serving the goals of al-Qaeda" to abandon the Constitution and the rule of law in the name of national security?
So maybe Brennan should ask his boss, "Why are we using these again?"
-- A. Serwer