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Conservatives Attack Administration for Upholding Constitution

The Wall Street Journal, Pat Buchanan and others are already condemning the Obama administration for treating Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a civilian criminal rather than an illegal warrior to whom we can presumably do whatever we please. We are in “a war,” The Journal reiterated today — as did Buchanan, debating my colleague Spencer Ackerman this morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the government had better start fighting one.

The Journal and Buchanan somehow overlook the five different wars — or five fronts in the “Terror War” — that Glenn Greenwald aptly points out today. We are, after all, engaged in consistent deadly bombings and raids aimed at terrorists and their sympathizers in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

Still, The Journal’s editors are wringing their hands over the administration’s decision to “treat terrorists like routine criminal suspects” with a right to a lawyer and a defense, rather than classifying Abdulmutallab as a “illegal enemy combatant who should be interrogated first with the goal of preventing future attacks and learning more about terror networks rather than gaining a single conviction.”

Here we have another version of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s “torture works” argument — notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. The Journal and Buchanan apparently believe that the U.S. government ought to have grabbed Abdulmutallab and whisked him away to a secret prison where we could interrogate him under torture, what Cheney and The Journal’s editorial board would call “enhanced interrogation techniques” — even though the FBI, which conducts lots of interrogations, has argued in memos that such tactics are unlikely to yield useful information and make prosecution of actual terrorists impossible. U.S. military leaders and at least one Republican senator have also agreed they may aid terrorist recruitment to boot.

It’s worth noting that the Bush administration treated Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber” who similarly attempted to blow up a plane shortly before Christmas in 2001, as a criminal. Reid was convicted in federal court and is now serving a life sentence in a federal prison.

In contrast, most of the suspects — including 520 Guantanamo Bay detainees — that the Bush administration treated as “enemy combatants” ended up being transferred or released. The Bush administration failed to collect any usable evidence against them, and as a result could neither try them nor continue to hold them without charge. As Republicans are quick to point out, some of those people have since joined terrorist groups back home. Indeed, reports are emerging that some may have been behind last week’s bombing attempt.

Actually, The Journal is right that, as I noted yesterday, the Obama administration’s handling of Abdulmutallab is inconsistent with the treatment of some other alleged terrorists, whom the administration has insisted it will try in military commissions rather than ordinary civilian courts. But rather than highlight the need to interrogate Abdulmutallab under torture, it underscores just how wrongheaded the warrior approach has actually been.

As Greenwald points out, our five-front war is “constantly delivering death to the Muslim world,” leading many Muslims to believe, not surprisingly, that we’re at war with Muslims, not just with terrorists.

However, prosecuting terror suspects as ordinary criminals — who, just like suspects in drug gangs and other organized crime often provide valuable information and rat out their criminal colleagues — shows Muslims and others that unlike the terrorists, we do believe in and adhere to the rule of law.

I know this isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that the Obama administration keeps getting attacked for trying to address. At a recent rally in New York against Attorney Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his suspected Sept. 11 co-conspirators in federal court, for example, anti-Obama protesters denounced the administration’s decision to accord the defendants the rights that come with a federal court trial, all the while vigorously waving the American flag and citing “our freedoms” protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Street protesters riled up by conservatives with a political agenda may be forgiven for forgetting what’s actually in the Constitution or what the flag is supposed to stand for. But The Wall Street Journal — and even Pat Buchanan — surely know better.

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