Are Terrorists Criminals Or Enemy Combatants?

A crowd watches an 'Intelligence Squared U.S.' debate on terrorism at NYU.

The audience at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts voted 55 percent against the motion "Treat Terrorists Like Enemy Combatants, Not Criminals" after the Sept. 14 debate. Chris Vultaggio hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Vultaggio

Coming Up

On Oct. 6, a panel of experts will debate the motion Islam Is A Religion Of Peace

Nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans continue to struggle with the complex ethical and legal questions that have been raised by the country's fight against terrorism. Among them: whether terrorists should be treated as criminals or as enemy combatants.

Some view a law enforcement approach to terrorism as dangerous. They argue that treating terrorists like criminals takes away vital tools that can be used to prevent attacks, such as interrogating detainees for intelligence and launching drone strikes.

But others counter that holding suspects without charge and denying them the ability to defend themselves in court goes against American values — and eventually erodes the freedoms of law-abiding citizens.

Four experts recently went head to head on the issue in the latest debate in the Intelligence Squared U.S. series. The motion for the Oxford-style debate was "Treat Terrorists Like Enemy Combatants, Not Criminals." Two panelists argued in favor of the motion; two argued against.

Before the debate, the audience at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts voted 33 percent for the motion and 32 percent against, with 35 percent undecided. After the debate, those arguing against treating terrorists like enemy combatants were declared the winners — 55 percent of the audience sided with them, while 39 percent were in favor of the motion and 6 percent remained unsure.

John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News' Nightline, moderated the Sept. 14 debate. Those debating were:

Michael Hayden and Marc Thiessen

Michael Hayden (left) and Marc Thiessen argue in favor of treating terrorists as enemy combatants. Chris Vultaggio hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Vultaggio


Michael Hayden has served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency; as the country's first principal deputy director of national intelligence; and as director of the National Security Agency and chief of the Central Security Service. He also served as commander of the Air Intelligence Agency and director of the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center. He retired as a four-star general from the U.S. Air Force after 39 years of active service. Hayden is currently a principal at the Chertoff Group, where he focuses on intelligence and risk analysis.

Marc Thiessen served as chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and, before that, as a senior aide to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms. He is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a weekly columnist for The Washington Post and author of The New York Times best-seller Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack (2010). His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, Weekly Standard, Daily Beast and other publications.

David Frakt and Stephen Jones

David Frakt and Stephen Jones argue against the motion "Treat Terrorists Like Enemy Combatants, Not Criminals" during the Sept. 14 debate. Chris Vultaggio hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Vultaggio


David Frakt is a professor at Barry University's Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve JAG Corps. From April 2008 to August 2009, he served as lead defense counsel with the Office of Military Commissions, where he became the first military defense counsel to win the dismissal of charges in a military commission, in the case of Mohammed Jawad. He was previously an associate professor and director of the Criminal Law Practice Center at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, Calif.

Stephen Jones is managing partner of the law firm of Jones, Otjen, and Davis. He has been involved in the defense of cases involving alleged acts of terrorism and/or disloyalty stretching back to the Vietnam War. In May 1995, he was appointed by the U.S. District Court to serve as the principal defense counsel for Timothy McVeigh, who was charged with the use of a weapon of mass destruction in the Oklahoma City bombing, which resulted in 168 deaths and was at that time the largest mass murder in American history. He has also represented retired or former employees of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and National Security Council staff.



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