WASHINGTON- Senator Susan Collins, R-Me., Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced legislation Thursday to require that U.S. intelligence officials be consulted following a foreign terrorist’s detention by the United States.
The legislation would address a serious error that occurred in the handling of the so-called Christmas Day terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was charged in civilian criminal court.
At a Homeland Security Committee meeting Wednesday, Senator Collins learned during her questioning of witnesses that none of the three top U.S. intelligence officials had been consulted about that important decision. The determination to place Abdulmutallab into the U.S. civilian court system was made without their input or knowledge.
Senator Collins said this mistake “may have prevented the collection of valuable intelligence about future terrorist threats to the United States. Frankly, I was stunned to learn that the decision to place the captured terrorist into the U.S. civilian criminal court system had been made without the input or the knowledge of any of those three top intelligence officials: the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Secretary of Homeland Security.
“These officials were never consulted by the Department of Justice. The decision was made without them.”
Joining Senator Collins as co-sponsors on the legislation were Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and fellow committee members, Senators Robert Bennett, R-Utah, and John Ensign, R-Nev.
Senator Collins said that the decision to place Abdulmutallab in civilian court “likely foreclosed the collection of additional intelligence information. We know that interrogations of terrorists can provide critical intelligence, but our civil justice system, as opposed to military detention, encourages terrorists to ‘lawyer-up’ and stop answering questions.
“Indeed, that was the case here. Abdulmutallab had provided some information to law enforcement officials in the hours immediately after his capture, and we surely would have obtained more if we had treated this foreign terrorist as an enemy belligerent and placed him in the military tribunal system.”
Her bill would require that the nation’s senior intelligence officials be consulted before the decision is made to try future foreign terrorists in civilian court.
“This bill forces the law enforcement and intelligence community to recognize that preventing the next attack should be their first priority,” said Senator Lieberman. “Terrorists like Abdulmutallab are not acting alone and they are not merely criminals – they are enemy combatants fighting for Islamist terrorist organizations – and likely have vital information that will help us in this war.”
Said Senator Ensign: “The United States is moving in a direction that threatens the national security of our country. The fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights and was placed under civilian court jurisdiction is as perplexing as it is dangerous.
“Compounding this decision further, we learned just yesterday that the President’s principal advisors on Intelligence, Homeland Security, and Defense were not even consulted on that decision,” said Ensign. “This more clearly illustrates that this Administration is more concerned with gently prosecuting terrorists than it is with extracting important intelligence from them that would help prevent future attacks and protect the citizens of this country.”
Said Senator Bennett: “In our ongoing fight against terrorism one of the most valuable tools we have is access to information that authorities gather from terrorist suspects who have recently been brought into custody. I am appalled to discover that there was little, if any, coordination among top officials when the Christmas Day terrorist was arrested,” he said. “This common sense legislation will help prevent premature or unilateral decisions from being made regarding the treatment of terrorists as criminal defendants instead of unlawful enemy combatants.”
Specifically, the bill would require the Attorney General to consult with the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of Defense, before initiating a custodial interrogation of foreign terrorists or filing civilian criminal charges against them.
“These officials are in the best position to know what other threats the United States is facing from terrorists and to assess the need to gather more intelligence on those threats,” said Senator Collins.
If there is a disagreement between the Attorney General and these officials regarding the appropriate approach to the detention and interrogation of the foreign terrorist, then only the President may direct the initiation of the identified civilian law enforcement actions.
To be clear, this legislation would not deprive the President of any investigative tool. It would not preclude a decision to charge a foreign terrorist in our military tribunal system or in our civilian criminal justice system. It would simply require that the Attorney General coordinate with our top intelligence officials before making a decision that could foreclose the collection of additional intelligence information on the suspect.
This consultation requirement is not unprecedented. In espionage cases, Congress has already recognized that when valuable intelligence is at stake our national security should trump decisions based solely on prosecutorial equities. This requirement must be extended to the most significant threat facing our nation – terrorism.
“I encourage the Senate to quickly act on this important legislation,” said Senator Collins. “The changes proposed are modest, but the consequences could be a matter of life and death.”