Terrorism Case Reignites National Security Debate A Somali terrorist suspect's civilian trial has upset Republican leaders, who argue that suspects should be sent to Guantanamo before facing a military tribunal. What the Ahmed Warsame case tells us about Obama and the politics of national security.
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Terrorism Case Reignites National Security Debate

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Terrorism Case Reignites National Security Debate

Terrorism Case Reignites National Security Debate

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin with the story of a terrorism suspect from Somalia. It's a case that may represent a new model for the Obama administration when it comes to national security.

Ahmed Warsame was picked up at sea. For two months he was interrogated by intelligence officials on a U.S. Navy vessel. Then, law enforcement agents came in to question him. This week, the FBI flew him to New York. There, he will face trial in a civilian court on charges that could send him to prison for life.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: The allegations against Ahmed Warsame, nine charges of material support to terrorist groups, weapons offenses, conspiracy, are overshadowed by what his case says about the Obama administration and the politics of national security. First, the politics.

Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor today.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): 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.

JOHNSON: For almost two years, McConnell says, Republicans in Congress have been asking the White House for answers about what it would do if captives picked up outside the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. And with Warsame, lawmakers like McConnell have an answer, one they don't like very much.

Senator MCCONNELL: It is not necessary to bring or continue to harbor these terrorists within the United States. The infrastructure is already in place to handle these dangerous individuals at Guantanamo.

JOHNSON: But the Obama administration hasn't sent any new detainees to the facility in Guantanamo Bay and it isn't likely to do so.

Professor MATTHEW WAXMAN (Columbia Law School): This is Matthew Waxman. I'm a law professor at Columbia Law School and former Pentagon advisor on detention issues. 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.

JOHNSON: Tools such as indefinite detention under the laws of war, military commission trials and trials in ordinary criminal courts. Administration sources say they sent Warsame to face justice in New York because the legal options are better there. Again, Waxman.

Professor WAXMAN: 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 difficult time proving the basic jurisdictional foundation.

JOHNSON: 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 at the Obama Justice Department, says that process matters a lot.

Mr. DAVID KRIS (U.S. Assistant Attorney General): You need to look at these national security threats from very close up. You need to understand their details and their particulars in order to figure out which tool is the right tool for the job.

JOHNSON: Kris first set out that approach in a speech in Washington last year. He likened all the government's options for handling terrorism suspects to a box filled with tools sitting around in a garage.

Mr. KRIS: Where a problem that you're facing or the threat that you're facing looks like a nail, then you want to use the hammer to deal with the nail. Where the threat looks like a bolt, then you need to use a wrench.

JOHNSON: And when members of Congress start taking tools away from the White House, Kris says strange things can happen.

Mr. KRIS: I know from my own experience in home repair and improvement that if you use a hammer on a bolt, it can be kind of satisfying in some visceral way because you'll make a loud noise and sparks will fly, but it's actually not very effective.

JOHNSON: And he says the stakes are too high in the ongoing fight against terrorism to take any gambles.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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