GOP lawmakers want Boston bombing suspect treated as ‘enemy combatant’

April 20, 2013

Four Republican lawmakers who are outspoken on issues of national security and foreign affairs strongly urged the Obama administration Saturday to treat the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings as an enemy combatant and not as a common criminal.

In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) credited local law enforcement and federal authorities for moving quickly to apprehend Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, including the decision to send the FBI’s high-value detainee interrogation team to Boston to assist in the manhunt and subsequent investigation.

“The accused perpetrators of these acts were not common criminals attempting to profit from a criminal enterprise, but terrorists trying to injure, maim, and kill innocent Americans,” the quartet wrote in a statement issued by their offices Saturday.

Tsarnaev, they said, “clearly is a good candidate for enemy combatant status. We do not want this suspect to remain silent.”

Obama did away with the term “enemy combatant” when he took office but has retained the broad right to detain, indefinitely and without charges, anyone who provides “substantial” assistance to al-Qaeda and its associates around the globe.

Federal officials said late Friday that they would use a public safety exception to delay reading Tsarnaev his “Miranda” rights, which advise a suspect of the right to counsel and offer a warning about self-incrimination. That decision is based on guidance from a 2010 Justice Department memorandum that said a delay in issuing Miranda warnings was justified when suspected terrorists were captured in the United States.

Federal prosecutors are planning to bring charges against Tsarnaev, but it is unclear whether they will file a complaint in U.S. District Court in Boston on Saturday, according to a U.S. official. The suspect’s medical condition will preclude him from being brought to court for an initial appearance until at least next week, the official said. The law requires the authorities to bring suspects before a magistrate judge “as soon as practicable after arrest.”

The lawmakers agreed with the decision not to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights but said Tsarnaev should be treated as an “enemy combatant,” because failing to do so “could very well be a national security mistake" that could "severely limit our ability to gather critical information about future attacks from this suspect.”

“We should be focused on gathering intelligence from this suspect right now that can help our nation understand how this attack occurred and what may follow in the future,” they wrote. “That should be our focus, not a future domestic criminal trial that may take years to complete."

They added: “We hope the Obama Administration will consider the enemy combatant option because it is allowed by national security statutes and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. We continue to face threats from radical Islamists in small cells and large groups throughout the world.  They have, as their primary focus, killing as many Americans as possible, preferably within the United States. We must never lose sight of this fact and act appropriately within our laws and values.”

McCain, Graham and Ayotte, known on Capitol Hill as the “three amigos,” often travel together overseas and publicly critique the administration’s handling of foreign affairs. King is a Long Island congressman whose role as a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee and the former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee permits him close access to senior intelligence, law enforcement and national security officials.

As Republicans called on the administration to handle the suspect differently than currently planned, some congressional Democrats urged the Justice Department to maintain its current course.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration "should resist hasty calls" to treat Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant. "This is not a foreign national caught on an enemy battlefield, but an American citizen arrested on American soil," he said. "The Justice Department has demonstrated a far greater ability to successfully prosecute suspected terrorists in federal courts than the military commissions have thus far been able to show."

King’s successor on the Homeland Security panel, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), said late Friday that the committee plans to hold hearings in the coming weeks to review how federal agencies responded to the bombings and conducted its investigation.

A federal law enforcement official said that because Tsarnaev is a naturalized U.S. citizen, he is not subject to temporary military custody provisions.

“Since 9/11, the practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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