In recent years, a welcome left-right alliance has sprung up in Congress around civil liberties issues, often in opposition to President Obama. On matters from drone strikes to NSA surveillance to Congressional authorization for U.S. military action in Syria, that alliance has had a real impact on the debate, or better, even forced some reform.
So now that the U.S. has announced the capture of one of the suspects in the Benghazi attacks, it will be interesting to see which civil-liberties-minded Congressional Republicans will speak out against the push — already underway from GOP hawks — to ship the suspect off to Guantanamo, rather than try him in civilian court.
Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are already calling for Ahmed Abu Khattala to go to Gitmo:
“It would be the biggest mistake for the ages to read this guy his Miranda rights,” Graham said. “We should have some quality time with this guy, weeks and months. Don’t torture him — but have some quality time.”
Senator Marco Rubio similarly opined today that Khattala should be immediately sent to Gitmo to be subjected to the “interrogation process,” claiming “this administration has been more interested in the politics of the war on terrorism than the execution of it,” adding that “America remains at war.” Mitch McConnell says Khattala should not get a lawyer or be read his rights.
Some Congressional Democrats are already pushing back on the rush to Guantanamo, but that’s not surprising.
It would more be interesting to hear from civil-liberties minded Republicans like Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, as well as Reps. Justin Amash and Walter Jones, on this topic.
Senator Paul has been at the forefront of demanding the administration offer a legal rationale for drone strikes on American citizens suspected of terrorism. Senator Lee has worked with Dems to strengthen civil liberties protections to prevent Americans from being detained without trial under war authority, in keeping with the Constitution. Rep. Amash introduced an amendment to defund NSA bulk surveillance that almost passed the House, despite leadership opposition, due to the surprising bipartisan support it garnered. Many Republicans and Dems who rose up against NSA surveillance also came together against Obama’s proposed military intervention in Syria.
To be sure, Khattala is not an American citizen, so the examples are not directly comparable. But there is overlap here. As Ken Gude, a civil liberties expert at the Center for American Progress, puts it, the question of where we imprison and/or try Khattala goes to the U.S government’s conduct — to whether it will act in accordance with civil liberties protections for those detained here.
“Our constitution and laws are designed to protect the rights of everyone in the United States and control the actions of the U.S. government particularly as it relates to individuals in its custody,” Gude says. He adds the case of Khattala poses a good test for right-leaning civil libertarians as to whether they believe “there should be one set of rules for American citizens and another for those that are not. It has long been held that the Constitution apples to everyone that is in the United States, citizen or not.”
“The criminal courts have showed a greater success record at prosecuting terrorists than we have had at Gitmo,” Dem Rep. Adam Schiff, who has worked with Republicans on drone legislation, tells me. “Given that some libertarian Republicans have joined with Democrats on issues like war authorization, it’s surprising that we have yet to see a convergence of libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats on trying terror suspects in civilian courts rather than in military tribunals.”
We are frequently told there are genuine tensions within the GOP over foreign policy and national security, with libertarian and isolationist Republicans like Rand Paul sparring with mainstream conservatives or neocons on a range of issues. Benghazi has kind of papered over such divisions by giving Republicans a common target (Obama) and a ripe scandal narrative to focus on. But the question of where to detain the first apprehended Benghazi suspect will provide a good test of just how deep these civil liberties differences among Republicans really run.