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Terrorism on U.S. soil: By criminal or enemy combatant?

With the Boston Marathon bombing suspects no longer threats to the American public, focus is turning quickly to how such an attack could have happened and whether the Chechen Muslim brothers had ties to al Qaeda or other global jihadist movements.

But there is another, more politically contentious question: Should the Obama administration designate 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev an "enemy combatant" bent on waging war against the U.S.?

Republicans say the answer is yes, and many argued on the Sunday morning talk shows that the White House could lose valuable intelligence if it mishandles the suspect's questioning or accedes to demands for attorneys or an invocation of a criminal defendant's right to remain silent.

"The reason for it is there are so many questions unanswered, there are so many potential links to terrorism here," said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence. He also laid out another reason why, in his mind, Mr. Tsarnaev deserves the label of enemy combatant.

"The battlefield is now in the United States," he said.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire expressed similar sentiments over the weekend.

But the Obama administration has invoked a "public-safety exception" that will let federal law enforcement question the suspect for at least 48 hours before reading him his Miranda rights. After that, Mr. Tsarnaev presumably will be treated as a criminal suspect and put through the civilian justice system.

Democrats on Sunday lined up behind the White House's rationale, consistent with its larger policy of dealing with terrorist suspects through the civilian court system in most cases.

"I don't think we have to cross the line and say he should be an enemy combatant," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and others in her party expressed similar thoughts Sunday.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, said he believes the administration will make the right decision on how to handle the suspect.

"I trust the attorney general to make that call," Mr. Patrick said during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Regardless, authorities probably have conducted little direct questioning because Mr. Tsarnaev is in serious condition at the intensive care unit of a Boston hospital and reportedly is unable to speak because of gunshot wounds to his neck.

The debate over what to do with the surviving bombing suspect is only half of the equation. Equal attention has been paid to 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev who was killed in a shootout Thursday night and how authorities, including the FBI, never picked up on his intentions.

There is now widespread speculation that he may have been trained by an Islamist terrorist organization in Chechnya, where he traveled for six months last year but apparently returned to the U.S. without raising much suspicion.

"I personally believe that this man received training when he was over there," Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said on "State of the Union." Citing the pressure cooker bombs used in the attacks, he added, "You don't learn that overnight."

Mr. McCaul also said that the Chechen rebels, who have been engaged for decades in a conflict with Russia in the majority-Muslim province, are "some of the fiercest jihadist warriors out there."

Some also are questioning how the FBI, which reportedly interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev, missed the warning signs.

Mr. Graham said the fact that he traveled to Chechnya and talked online about killing American citizens should have tipped off authorities.

"Either our laws are insufficient or the FBI failed, but we're at war with radical Islamists and we need to up our game," he said on CNN.

Mr. King echoed those sentiments, arguing that political correctness must not get in the way of a full investigation into whether the brothers were working as part of a larger Muslim terrorist organization.

"Ninety-nine percent of Muslims are outstanding Americans, but the fact is, that's where the threat is coming from," he said.

Boston's Muslim community has strongly condemned the attacks. The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center said in a statement over the weekend that the city's Muslims are "angry" about the bombings and "hurt" by the fact they could not prevent the attacks.

• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.

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