Three influential Republican lawmakers slammed the Obama administration’s handling of Abu Anas al-Libi, the suspected high-level al Qaeda operative captured by American commandos in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, saying the terrorist now being held and interrogated on a U.S. Navy ship on the Mediterranean Sea should be transferred quickly to the detainee prison at Guantanamo Bay.
“He is on an American warship somewhere in the Mediterranean because the administration refuses to use Guantanamo Bay,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham. “They’re treating him as an enemy combatant under the law of war; that is a good decision. The bad decision is not to put him in a permanent confinement facility that will allow long-term interrogation.”
Mr. Graham praised the Obama administration for shifting away from the use of controversial drone attacks in the war on terrorism in favor of two clandestine raids carried out by U.S. forces in North Africa last weekend — including one that netted al-Libi in Tripoli. But the South Carolina Republican, who held a news conference at the Capitol with Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, complained that the United States does not have in place a clear, or legal, system through which intelligence can be aggressively pulled from suspects captured in such raids.
“We’re appreciating the fact that we’re now going into the capture business,” Mr. Graham said. “We’re not killing everybody by drones. But we have an ill-conceived and, I think, a system with fatal flaws in it when it comes to gathering intelligence.”
Highlighting a debate that has burned for years in Washington over the legal challenges associated with conducting a borderless war against dangerous terrorists, Mr. Graham’s remarks came as the Obama administration announced the appointment Tuesday of a new special envoy assigned to come up with a plan for closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison for terrorism suspects.
The prison in Cuba, established by President George W. Bush shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has long attracted criticism from international observers, who accuse the U.S. of torturing terrorism suspects and detaining them indefinitely beyond the bounds of international legal norms.
Amnesty International once referred to it as the “Gulag of our times,” and the Obama administration’s appointment Tuesday of attorney Paul Lewis as a special envoy to the facility signals the latest move by Mr. Obama to hold true to his 2009 promise to shutter Guantanamo once and for all.
Without Guantanamo, however, it is not yet clear what the administration ultimately intends to do with men like al-Libi, or others who may be captured alive by U.S. special operations forces rather than killed by drone-fired missiles.
If the goal is to prosecute them in the U.S. federal court system, the business of interrogation creates serious legal issues because under U.S. federal law, any suspects — terrorist or not — must be charged with a crime within 24 hours of arrest and cannot be questioned indefinitely by interrogators seeking intelligence or anything else.
Those hurdles appear to be at play in the al-Libi case because the 49-year-old, whose legal name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, already has been charged in U.S. federal court. An indictment was filed against him in New York in 2000, with charges relating to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya that killed more than 220 people.
The White House has not been forthcoming this week about when or whether it plans to deliver al-Libi to a federal courtroom. As a result, the possibility remains open that he may still end up in Guantanamo, where he could be charged in the separate military court established during the Bush years.
Mr. Graham on Tuesday dismissed the notion that there is anything unlawful about Guantanamo.
Calling it “one of the best-run military jails in the history of warfare” and fully in compliance with the Geneva Convention, he claimed that high-level U.S. counterterrorism operations — including the May 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — have depended on intelligence gleaned from interrogations of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo.
Mrs. Ayotte, meanwhile, said that “there hasn’t been support in Congress for closing Guantanamo, and if the choice is that we’re putting people on ships just because the political goal of the administration is to close Guantanamo, I don’t think that’s a good choice for protecting America.”
“Right now, Guantanamo is there, it’s a top-rate detention facility,” she said. “Until the Congress, working with the administration, makes a different decision, why wouldn’t you use that rather than using this temporary ship situation where you don’t have an opportunity to have the long-term interrogation of someone like al-Libi?”
Mr. Chambliss added that Guantanamo is now home to several high-level al Qaeda operatives, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
“We are still, 10 years later, getting valuable information from those individuals,” he said. “So what are we going to do with the latest guy, who had very close ties to bin Laden, who has very close ties to [current al Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri? We’re going to put him on ship. And I guess we’re going to keep him there for 60 days or so. And we’re going to take him to New York, we hear, to be incarcerated and tried.”
“Instead of taking him to Guantanamo, declaring him as an enemy combatant,” Mr. Chambliss said, “… he is going to get lawyered up he’s going to [be] silent and we’re not going to be able to gather any information from this individual.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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