Eternal Return, Enemy Combatant Edition: A call to place the Chelsea bombing suspect in military custody

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, today called for holding Ahmad Khan Rahami, the Afghan-American arrested as the sole suspect in the Chelsea bombing, as an enemy combatant: placing him in indefinite military custody and interrogating him without a defense lawyer or a Miranda warning that he has any right to remain silent. Graham argued that the priority now should be gathering intelligence that might prevent future attacks, not gathering evidence that would be admissible in a courtroom trial. But he also acknowledged, at the end of his statement, a certain weariness to this debate.

“Now, I hope the Obama Administration will consider holding Rahami as an enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes. The suspect, based upon his currently reported actions, clearly is a candidate for enemy combatant status.

“Right now, we should be focused on gathering intelligence from this suspect that can help our nation understand how these attacks were planned and carried out. Holding Rahami as an enemy combatant also allows us to question him about what attacks may follow in the future. That should be our focus, not a future domestic criminal trial that may take years to complete.

“Holding Rahami as an enemy combatant to determine whether he has ties to terrorist groups, whether he was working for or funded by them, and whether there are co-conspirators, and then trying him in our civilian system for his terrorist acts is the best way to protect our country first, and then achieve justice.

“As an American citizen, Rahami cannot be tried by a military commission. Any future trial at which he would be a defendant would take place in federal district court or state court.

I have little confidence the Obama Administration will take the course of action I am proposing. Instead, they will read him Miranda Rights as soon as possible and continue to criminalize the war. Their actions will leave our nation less safe in the years to come.”

Graham sounds a little bit like an actor phoning in his role in a movie sequel, and for good reason. This is specifically a repetition of an episode in 2013, when Graham made the same call regarding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, following his capture. Both Tsarnaev and Rahami are naturalized American citizens, arrested on American soil, for pressure cooker bombings. Fortunately, Rahami’s did not succeed in killing anyone, unlike the Tsarnaev brothers’. But legally we’re looking at the same thing.

One big problem, legally, with Graham’s idea is that there is as yet no publicly known evidence linking Rahami to Al Qaeda. The United States government does not have the power to hold just any terrorism suspect in wartime detention — rather, that legal authority exists only for captives who are members of the specific organization with which the United States is engaged in an armed conflict. In 2013, I interviewed Graham about his idea with regard to Tsarnaev, and he acknowledged this, but suggested that a judge would give the government leeway to hold a terrorism suspect in military custody for up to 30 days or so anyway, to figure out if there were any such links.

“You can’t hold every person who commits a terrorist attack as an enemy combatant, I agree with that,” Graham told me then. “But you have a right, with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with Al Qaeda — I think you have a reasonable belief to go down that road, and it would be a big mistake not to go down that road. If we didn’t hold him for intelligence-gathering purposes, that would be unconscionable.”

Even if Rahami were linked to Al Qaeda, it remains murky whether the government may hold a citizen arrested on domestic soil as an enemy combatant. In 2004, the Supreme Court upheld the indefinite wartime detention of a citizen captured fighting against the United States in the Afghanistan combat zone to prevent his “return to the battlefield,” holding that “there is no bar to this Nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant.” But its ruling was confined to the “narrow question” presented by that fact pattern alone, and left unanswered whether a citizen terrorism suspect arrested on domestic soil could be held in military custody. Perhaps importantly, Justice O’Connor also observed in the plurality opinion that, “Certainly, we agree that indefinite detention for the purpose of interrogation is not authorized” (my emphasis). In the Jose Padilla case, two appeals courts disagreed on the question of whether domestically arrested American citizen terrorism suspects could be held that way, and the Supreme Court never resolved the question. Congress punted when lawmakers had an opportunity to clarify what the law should be.

As readers of Power Wars know, one of Obama’s signature national security and civil liberties policies — one he never backed away from, even as he made many compromises in other areas — has been that terrorism cases arising on domestic soil should exclusively be handled with civilian law enforcement procedures and powers, not military force. He has been unwilling to hold American citizens and lawful residents arrested on domestic soil as enemy combatants. Meanwhile, those readers also know that ever since the fallout from the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas 2009, when Republican Scott Brown harnessed anger over the FBI’s handling of the underwear bomber into winning the special election for a vacant Senate seat in super-blue Massachusetts, it has been a core GOP strategy to attack Obama for refusing to put new terrorism captives into Gitmo-style military custody.

As a result, every time someone gets arrested for a suspected (Islamist) terrorism offense, both sides trot out the same talking points. What was new about the Tsarnaev episode — the twist that there was no evidence linking the suspect to Al Qaeda — is now becoming part of the déjà vu cycle of national security legal policy and politics, too.