After two-and-a-half years of steady defeats in his battle with Congress over how to handle terrorist suspects, President Barack Obama has finally notched a win. Tuesday afternoon, Obama’s administration announced that it had transferred an alleged Somali terrorist, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, to New York City for trial after months of secret interrogation on a Navy.
The move flies in the face of Republican Congressional efforts to force all terrorists captured abroad to be treated as military detainees and tried only in military tribunals. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell took the floor Wednesday to denounce the move. “Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame is a foreign enemy combatant,” McConnell said, “He should be treated as one; he should be sitting in a cell Guantanamo Bay, and eventually be tried before a military commission.”
As a practical matter, the fight between Obama and Congress should not be controversial: terrorists have been successfully tried in U.S. civilian courts for decades, including under George W. Bush. At the same time, even a younger, more liberal Barack Obama accepted that military trials were warranted for some terrorism suspects .
But politically and ideologically, the fight is fraught. The GOP scored some of its most important wins against Obama when he was still enjoying soaring popularity on the issue. For Obama, and especially his Attorney General, Eric Holder, civilian terrorism trials are about protecting the authority of the U.S. system of Justice from what they see as dangerous undermining by the GOP.
By and large the GOP has had the upper hand in this fight, forcing ever more restrictive measures through Congress with the help of Democrats fearful of polls showing Americans resisting the transfer of terrorists to the U.S. Not only has the GOP completely killed the idea of closing Guantanamo Bay, an early pledge by Obama, but is trying to block the transfer of any terrorism suspect from there to the U.S. for trial. Obama has threatened to veto the bill containing that provision.
Warsame gave the administration a rare opportunity to thumb its nose at Congress and defend its use of the courts to try terrorism suspects. Captured in the Gulf by the U.S. military on April 19, Warsame was interrogated by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a unit set up in August 2009 as the Obama administration’s answer to Bush-era interrogation excesses. After two months of that, Warsame was read his Miranda rights, waived them, and was interviewed by law enforcement officials for “several days,” according to a Justice department account.