A couple weeks ago, Adm. William McRaven of the Joint Special Operations Command wondered if there was even a standard system for capturing and interrogating terrorist suspects in the Obama era. Now we know that there’s a template – you hold the suspect at sea for months until you figure out a way to charge them with something.

A Somali militant linked to Al Qaeda was held and interrogated for two months on a U.S. Navy ship — the first publicly known example of the Obama administration secretly detaining a new terrorism suspect outside the criminal justice system.

Senior administration officials revealed the case Tuesday after an indictment against the man, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, was unsealed in federal court in New York. The indictment, which does not mention Warsame’s military detention, charges that he worked to broker a weapons deal between Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen and the Somali militant group Shabab. It alleges that he fought on Shabab’s behalf in Somalia in 2009, then went to Yemen in 2010 for explosives training and took part in terrorist activities there.

According to administration officials, Warsame was seized April 19 by U.S. forces in international waters while traveling between Yemen and Somalia. He had been identified by U.S. intelligence as an important target, the officials said. A second person taken into custody with Warsame was later released, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing intelligence matters.

Warsame was turned over to the FBI after extensive “humane” interrogation aboard ship by a unit known as a High-Value Interrogation Group, made up of FBI, CIA and Defense Department personnel, the officials said. But a U.S. official said CIA officers did not directly question Warsame. After the controversy surrounding George W. Bush-era interrogations of detainees, the CIA has consistently said it has kept its agents away from direct questioning.

So the positives: it wasn’t a CIA operation, and instead of just transferring the suspect to Gitmo to rot, the Administration actually charged Warsame in an Article III court. The not-so-positives: they secretly detained and held Warsame for two months on a floating ship, and without access to the Red Cross or other organizations. The Administration claims humane interrogation, and said they read Warsame his Miranda rights, but he waived them and continued to talk to interrogators.

Adam Serwer notes that McRaven actually described an almost identical situation like this to Congress in that hearing a couple weeks back. Republicans seem more angry about Warsame’s transfer to an Article III court than the secret detention on a ship for two months.

In a saner world, we might be asking how someone detained on a ship at sea for two months without a lawyer can possibly waive his Miranda rights, or how someone in such a situation could genuinely understand that they have a right not to incriminate themselves. We might be wondering how any information given under those circumstances could possibly be admissible, with the shadow of indefinite, secret detention at sea looming over them. We might be wondering under what legal authority the U.S. military is authorized to detain individuals secretly and indefinitely outside a zone of active combat.

Instead, these events, rather than highlighting the irrelevance of Miranda to intelligence collection, or the effectiveness of federal courts in incapacitating terrorists, may provide Republicans with new fodder for arguing that Gitmo should be reopened. The center as it is, with no place to take terrorism suspects captured abroad, does not seem likely to hold.

I’m surprised that the Bush Administration didn’t think of a floating Gitmo, inaccessible to authorities and perhaps, in their construction, outside the vagaries of the law. But I think Serwer’s right. This is a really poor option for detention policy, almost making Gitmo attractive by comparison, although the fact that Gitmo has become a legal black hole and a prelude to military commissions cuts against that. It just shows the clear pitfalls in detention policy when you have an intractable Congress that believes anyone of Muslim origin suspected of terrorism shouldn’t have the rights of an Article III court.

More on Warsame, including the conflicting accounts of his importance as a terrorist leader, from Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt.

David Dayen

David Dayen

1 Comment