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Op-Ed: In Age of Terror, Do Foreign Suspects Deserve Civilian Trials?

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In Age of Terror, Do Foreign Suspects Deserve Civilian Trials?

by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

As Americans, we share collective memories of singular moments that shape and define us as a nation. Many people vividly recall where they were the day Neil Armstrong planted the U.S. flag on the moon, JFK was assassinated, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated, the Berlin Wall fell, and when thousands of innocent people were massacred right here in the United States by acts of terror in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

After 9/11, grief was matched by patriotism across the country. The attacks defined a presidency, launched a war on terror and challenged the U.S. military, intelligence, national security and foreign policy communities to target, analyze and root out al Qaeda and its affiliates before more innocent Americans lost their lives to terrorism.

Nearly nine years later, 9/11 presents another dimension of challenges and controversy as the U.S. government decides how and where to detain and prosecute suspected foreign terrorists. If a foreigner suspected of plotting terror attacks against the United States is arrested and detained by U.S. intelligence officials, should they be afforded civilian trials and receive the same legal rights as U.S. citizens?

As a senior member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, I have joined several lawmakers to advocate prosecuting the terror suspects under the Military Commissions Act.

Although the issue is ripe for legal debate, it seems to make common sense that a foreign terror suspect should not automatically be entitled to the same constitutional rights and legal protections as U.S. citizens. The Military Commissions Act allows for enemy combatants to be transferred into military custody and tried before a military commission. Al Qaeda essentially has declared war on Western civilization. It seems logical to pursue justice through the military commissions.

Back in November, the U.S. Justice Department announced plans to hold a civilian criminal trial in New York for five of the suspects who allegedly helped mastermind the 9/11 attacks. Rising public and bipartisan opposition at the grassroots and on Capitol Hill led the Obama administration to reconsider.

I do not agree that providing a public platform for accused terrorism suspects in a civilian trial is in the nation's best interest. It puts national security at risk by potentially releasing valuable intelligence information during the trial. Moreover, a public criminal trial could conceivably serve as a bully pulpit and recruitment tool for al Qaeda.

The bottom line is that it seems a bit incredulous that a terrorism suspect would have more constitutional rights than our own men and women in uniform should they face a court marshal. This is why I recently co-sponsored a bill with a group of bipartisan Senators that would prohibit the use of any federal funds for civilian trials of the 9/11 terrorists.

From my senior position in the U.S. Senate, I will continue to conduct rigorous oversight of the executive branch, including its failure to fully implement the Visa Security program in our high risk posts around the world. I'm also working to close a weakness in U.S. visa policy that allows people to stay in the U.S. after their visa has been revoked. Under current law, potential terrorists could block their own deportation in our own U.S. court system. These people should not be allowed to loiter in our courts.

Based upon congressional testimony in January, unanimous agreement was shared by the Obama administration's top national security advisers that the potential for another attempted terrorist attack on U.S. soil is imminent within the next three to six months. I can't say most Americans would consider the testimony a revelation.

But what truly is revealing, unfortunately, are the shortcomings in our counterterrorism efforts exposed by the terrorist attempt on Christmas Day. Considering that Umar Farouk Abdullmutallab's own father warned U.S. officials that his son might be planning a suicide mission, it seems hard to believe the State Department would not immediately suspend permission for him to travel to the United States and begin the process of revoking his visa.

National security is the federal government's primary responsibility. Granting a foreign terrorist suspect the same constitutional rights and legal protections as U.S. citizens is the wrong remedy for combating terrorism in the modern age. Let justice be served in the military courts for those accused of declaring war on America and plotting suicide missions to kill innocent Americans.

Let's not allow the U.S. courts to become a publicity tool for al Qaeda.


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