Christmas Bomber: Terrorist or Criminal?

It's a big difference

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Is Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year old Nigerian who attempted to ignite explosives on a Christmas flight to Detroit, a terrorist or a criminal? This is no academic matter--the distinction has important implications for his interrogation, his trial, and the way the U.S. prepares for and responds to similar individuals.

The Obama administration has so far considered him a criminal, with the FBI interrogating him and eventually reading him his Miranda rights. Officials plan to try him before a civilian court rather than military commission. Republicans, however, strongly criticize this decision, arguing that Abdulmutallab should be treated as an "enemy combatant" and terrorist. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair agrees, breaking with the White House. Which is it?

  • Terror Threat Justifies Harsh Treatment  Bush-era Attorney General Michael Mukasey writes in The Washington Post, "The struggle against Islamist extremists is unlike any other war we have fought [...] The only way to prevail is to gather intelligence on who is doing what where and to take the initiative to stop it." He discounts legal arguments that we are obligated to consider Abdulmutallab as a criminal. "There was thus no legal or policy compulsion to treat Abdulmutallab as a criminal defendant, at least initially, and every reason to treat him as an intelligence asset to be exploited promptly."
  • Bush Admin Would Have Considered Him Criminal  The American Prospect's Adam Serwer notes that Bush treated "shoe bomber" Richard Reid as a criminal, same as Obama treats Abdulmutallab. "But because issuing someone their Miranda rights has no bearing on intelligence collection whatsoever, and because the criminal justice system is perfectly capable of handling terrorists, they tried [Reid] in civilian court," he writes. "Bush either would have done things exactly the way Obama did them, except if they had chosen to do something dumb and possibly illegal that might have prevented the FBI from getting intelligence from Abdulmutallab in a timely fashion."
  • Bush's Decision Was Wrong  National Review's Andrew McCarthy thinks that the Bush White House erred in treating Reid as a civilian criminal and that Obama should not follow suit. "When Reid tried to blow up his airliner, 9/11 had just happened. We had not spent eight years grappling with the question of how international terrorists who carry out attacks in the United States should be dealt with," he writes. "We are not in a domestic-threat atmosphere as dire as we were in 2001 (though that could change in a hurry). We have had nine years to think about how to handle the Islamist threat."
  • Little Benefit, Many Downsides To 'Combatant' ID  Counterterrorism Center chief John Brennan argues in USA Today that the U.S. has little to gain by treating Abdulmutallab as an "enemy combatant." "Cries to try terrorists only in military courts lack foundation. There have been three convictions of terrorists in the military tribunal system since 9/11, and hundreds in the criminal justice system," he writes. "It's naive to think that transferring Abdulmutallab to military custody would have caused an outpouring of information. There is little difference between military and civilian custody, other than an interrogator with a uniform. The suspect gets access to a lawyer, and interrogation rules are nearly identical."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.