- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Obama administration, which refuses to send terrorism suspects to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, on Wednesday defended its decision to interrogate a detainee for two months aboard a U.S. Navy ship, outside the reach of American law.

“He was detained lawfully, under the law of war, aboard a Navy ship until his transfer to the U.S. for prosecution,” presidential spokesman Jay Carney said.

But a leading critic of the administration’s handling of detainees, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the episode demonstrates the problems with Mr. Obama’s aversion to holding suspects at the center in Cuba.

“They are so afraid to use Gitmo that they are basically making decisions around not having to use Gitmo, rather than what’s best for the country,” Mr. Graham said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “What’s best for the nation is to treat these foreign fighters as enemy combatants.”

The military captured Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, 25, a Somali national said to have close associations with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, on April 19. He was put aboard a Navy ship in the Persian Gulf region and interrogated at sea by intelligence officials.

Under interrogation, Mr. Warsame provided what officials called important intelligence about al Qaeda in Yemen and its relationship with al-Shabab militants in Somalia. Mr. Carney described him as a member of al-Shabab and said the interrogation yielded “very valuable intelligence.”

“Wherever possible, our first priority is and always has been to apprehend terrorism suspects and to preserve the opportunity to elicit the valuable intelligence that can help us protect the American people,” Mr. Carney said. He added that the International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to visit the Navy vessel “and had an opportunity to interview the detainee aboard the ship.”

Mr. Obama campaigned in 2008 on the promise to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. He was highly critical of the prison and of the Bush administration’s permission to use “enhanced” interrogation techniques on a few high-profile Al Qaeda detainees.

Two days after taking office, Mr. Obama signed an executive order directing the military to close Guantanamo Bay by January 2010. The president also closed CIA-operated “black sites” where detainees were interrogated overseas.

But the administration missed the deadline for Guantanamo even as Mr. Obama continued to insist he would close the facility. In January 2010, a Justice Department task force recommended that about 50 of the 196 detainees at Guantanamo Bay be held indefinitely without trial under the laws of war.

In March, the president reversed his campaign pledge, signing an executive order that will hold at least 48 prisoners indefinitely at Guantanamo. The order also resumed military trials for detainees being held there.

Congress has prohibited prosecution of these detainees in U.S. federal courts. But Mr. Warsame was brought to New York on July 4, where he faces prosecution in a civilian court and is being held in a civilian detention center.

Republicans lawmakers as well as some Democrats have criticized the administration’s decision to prosecute some terrorism suspects outside of the military justice system.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he has “serious concerns” about prosecuting Mr. Warsame in a civilian court.

“The decision for discreetly bringing such an individual to U.S. soil is unclear,” Mr. King said. “Unless the Administration has extremely compelling reasons, I strongly believe Warsame belongs before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay rather than in a civilian court in Manhattan.”

Mr. Graham said the administration’s policy is creating “a nation without a jail” for terrorism suspects.

“So what do they do? They put this guy on a ship,” Mr. Graham said in The Times’ “Newsmaker” interview. “And he’s got to be smart enough to know they can’t keep me on this ship forever. And because you don’t want to hold people at Gitmo … you’re going to basically be pushing people into criminal court, cases that shouldn’t be in criminal court.”

Adm. William McRaven, leader of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, recently told Mr. Graham in a Senate hearing that the length of time the military could hold a terror suspect on a ship “depends on whether or not we think we can prosecute that individual in a U.S. court or we can return him to a third party country.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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