United States sends terror suspects to warships for interrogation

Questioning suspected terrorists in international waters is Obama's answer to Bush-era detention policies he once promised to end

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 5:08am

Instead of sending suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay or secret CIA "black" sites for interrogation, the Obama administration is questioning terrorists for as long as it takes aboard US naval vessels.

And it's doing it in a way that preserves the government's ability to ultimately prosecute the suspects in civilian courts.

That's the pattern emerging with the recent capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, one of the FBI's most wanted terrorist suspects, long-sought for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa. He was captured in a raid on Saturday and is being held aboard the USS San Antonio, an amphibious warship mainly used to transport troops.

Questioning suspected terrorists aboard US warships in international waters is President Barack Obama's answer to the Bush administration detention policies that candidate Obama promised to end. The strategy also makes good on Obama's pledge to prosecute alleged terrorists in US civilian courts, which many Republicans have argued against. But it also raises questions about using "law of war" powers to circumvent the safeguards of the US criminal justice system.

By holding people in secret prisons, known as black sites, the CIA was able to question them over long periods, using the harshest interrogation tactics, without giving them access to lawyers. Obama came to office without a ready replacement for those secret prisons. The concern was that if a terrorist was sent directly to court, the government might never know what intelligence he had. With the black sites closed and Obama refusing to send more people to the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it wasn't obvious where the country would hold people for interrogation.

And that's where the warships came in.

On Saturday, the Army's Delta Force and Libyan operatives captured al-Libi in a raid. A team of US investigators from the military, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department has been sent to question him on board the San Antonio, two law enforcement officials said. The San Antonio was in the Mediterranean as part of the fleet preparing for now-cancelled strikes on Syria last month.

Al-Libi, who was indicted in 2000 for his involvement in the 1998 bombings, was being held on the warship in military custody under the laws of war, which means a person can be captured and held indefinitely as an enemy combatant, one official said.

As of Monday, al-Libi had not been read his rights under US law, which include the rights to remain silent and speak with a lawyer.

"It appears to be an attempt to use assertion of law of war powers to avoid constraint and safeguards in the criminal justice system," said Hina Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "I am very troubled if this is the pattern that the administration is setting for itself."

Libya yesterday summoned the US ambassador over the capture and the country's top political authority, the General National Congress, demanded that al-Libi be handed back.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said that Libyans accused of crimes should be tried at home, but that the raid would not harm ties with Washington.

Militant groups angered by the raid have taken to social networking sites to call for revenge attacks on strategic targets as well as for the kidnappings of Americans in the capital.