Terrorism Case Re-Ignites National Security Debate
Somali man Ahmed Warsame was picked up in the Gulf and interrogated by intelligence officials on a U.S. Navy vessel for two months before law enforcement agents came in to question him.
The FBI flew him to New York Monday, where he'll face a civilian trial on conspiracy and weapons charges that could send him to prison for life.
But the allegations against Warsame are nowhere near as important as what his case says about the Obama administration and the politics of national security.
First, the politics.
"It is truly astonishing that this administration is determined, determined, to give foreign fighters all the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens regardless of where they are captured," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell while he spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday.
For almost two years, McConnell says Republicans in Congress have been asking the White House for answers about what it would do with captives picked up outside Iraq or Afghanistan.
And with Warsame, lawmakers may finally have an answer.
"It is not necessary to bring or continue to harbor these terrorists within the United States," McConnell says. "The infrastructure is already in place to handle these dangerous individuals at Guantanamo."
But the Obama administration hasn't sent any new detainees to the facility in Guantanamo Bay and it isn't likely to do so.
"If there's an Obama administration model, it's that the government should have an array of legal tools available and should use them in combination on a case-by-case basis with some flexibility," says Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia Law School and a former Pentagon adviser on detention issues.
Those tools could include indefinite detention under the laws of war, military commission trials and trials in ordinary criminal courts.
Using The Right Tools
Administration sources say they sent Warsame to face justice in New York because the legal options are better there — "as opposed to taking their chances with military commissions where many of the legal issues remain hotly disputed and where the government might have a hard time proving the basic jurisdictional foundation," Waxman says.
The Pentagon, the intelligence community and the Justice Department reviewed Warsame's record closely, and all of them agreed he should go to a civilian court.
David Kris, who helped develop national security policy for the Department of Justice during Obama's time in the White House, says that process matters a lot.
"You need to look at these national security threats from very close up," he says. "You need to understand their details and their particulars in order to figure out which tool is the right tool for the job."
Kris first set out that approach during a speech in Washington last year. He likened all the government's options to handle terrorism suspects to a box filled with tools sitting around in the garage.
"Where the problem that you're facing or the threat that you're facing looks like a nail, then you want to use a hammer to deal with the nail," he explains. "Where the threat looks like a bolt, then you want to use the wrench."
And when members of Congress start taking out tools and hiding them from the White House, Kris says strange things can happen.
"I know from my own experience in home repair and improvement that when you use a hammer on a bolt, it can be kind of satisfying in some kind of visceral way because you'll make a loud noise and sparks will fly, but it's actually not very effective," he says.
And he says the stakes are too high in the ongoing fight against terrorism to take any gambles.