When it comes to getting “tough” with captured terrorists, it looks as though President Donald Trump is all talk and no action.
As a candidate, Trump promised to jettison the Obama administration’s criminal-justice approach to terrorist detention and interrogation, and start treating captured terrorists as enemy combatants once again. “I know that they want to try them in our regular court systems, and I don’t like that at all,” Trump declared during the campaign, adding, “We’re gonna load [Guantanamo Bay] up with some bad dudes, believe me.”
Well, in the past two weeks, his administration has captured two apparent “bad dudes” – one in Libya, the other in New York – and in both cases Trump has continued Obama’s policies to the letter.
Recall that in December 2009, many on the right were outraged when the Obama administration gave al-Qaida terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – who nearly brought down a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day with an underwear bomb – a lawyer and a Miranda warning after just 50 minutes of questioning. In a January 2010 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., along with other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, demanded to know who “made the decision to treat Umar Abdulmutallab as a criminal suspect, entitled to Miranda warnings and the right to counsel, rather than an unprivileged enemy belligerent subject to military detention.”
There was similar outrage when the Obama administration did the same thing after Taliban-trained terrorist Faisal Shahzad tried to blow up a car bomb in Times Square, and when Chechen terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev set off a bomb at the Boston Marathon and when alleged Benghazi mastermind Ahmed Khattala, was captured and questioned briefly without a Miranda warning aboard a Navy ship before eventually reading him his rights and bringing him to Washington for the civilian trial now underway in federal court.
These are the policies Trump promised to change.
Just last week, he had his first chance, when U.S. forces captured Mustafa al-Imam, who is alleged to have been involved in the 2012 Benghazi terror attack. But instead of holding him as an enemy combatant and questioning him under the laws of war, they are sending him to Washington to stand trial in civilian court - just as Obama would have.
Then on Tuesday, Trump had a second chance when accused Uzbek terrorist Sayfullo Saipov was captured alive after allegedly moving down and killing eight people on a New York bike path. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke to Trump the night of the attack and told him that he should declare Saipov an enemy combatant. “The last thing I want this guy to hear tonight is you have a right to a lawyer. The last thing you should hear is his Miranda rights,” Graham told Fox News. “I hope President Trump will break the cycle of turning the war into a crime by declaring this guy a suspected enemy combatant.”
Trump didn’t follow Graham’s advice. On Wednesday morning, the president suggested he might, telling reporters at the White House that Saipov was an “animal” and that he might “send him to Gitmo.” That turned out to be all talk as well. Instead, the administration read Saipov his Miranda rights, gave him a lawyer and charged him in federal court - just as Obama would have.
There is no way that interrogators were able to effectively interrogate Saipov before charging him. Were the intelligence community’s leading experts on Uzbekistan and the Islamic State in the room for his questioning? Did Saipov’s interrogators have time to exploit the contents of his cellphone - including his calling record and all the images, text messages, emails and other content - and run those contents by those intimately familiar with any National Security Agency raw traffic to, from or about him, and then confront him on the contents? Did they share Saipov’s answers to questions with CIA experts for verification and recommended follow-up questions?
Federal authorities say Saipov told the FBI he plotted his attack for more than a year and has been in the country since 2010. Are they absolutely sure that they have accounted for all of his actions, and interactions, during the course of that entire period, before Mirandizing him? Have they brought in all his known associates for questioning and used their statements to further challenge and probe his statements? There is zero chance that they did all this. So why is he already being told he has the right to remain silent? It is an outrage.
Continuing the Obama administration’s law-enforcement-first approach to detaining and questioning terrorists is simply inexcusable. So far Trump is all bluster and no bite when it comes to dealing with alleged terrorists. Calling them “animals” is meaningless if he gives them legal protections they do not deserve - and fails to get intelligence from them that Americans deserve to keep them safe from more attacks.
Marc A. Thiessen is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and former chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush.