After an initial delay, Faisal Shahzad, the failed Times Square car bomber, stood up today in a federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan and entered a plea of "guilty."
Though his expected court appearance had been widely publicized, there were no gunshots heard or bomb threats issued. Notwithstanding Liz Cheney's warnings that bringing suspected terrorists to a U.S. federal courthouse can only cause chaos, the proceeding was orderly, calm and peaceful. The dozens of reporters from around the world who packed the courtroom quietly hurried out to file their stories across the globe.
And the story that they now have to tell is a simple one: the U.S. criminal justice is working.
Since it happened in May, critics of the Obama administration have heralded the failed Times Square bombing attempt as proof that Americans are under constant threat from a powerful foreign enemy and must, in our vigilance, treat all suspected terrorists as enemy warriors -- throwing them in an offshore military prison and either detaining them indefinitely or allowing them only a trial by military commission.
But the careful handling of Faisal Shahzad by New York City police and federal law enforcement is proof of just the opposite. Whether the attempted mass murderer sees himself as aligned with a group of foreign jihadists battling American imperialism is beside the point. What matters is that good old-fashioned law enforcement -- police officers quickly responding to the observations of an alert pedestrian, and skilled FBI agents using time-honored interrogation techniques -- successfully averted disaster and, thereafter, gained critical intelligence to help thwart future attacks.
Shahzad, a Pakistan-born U.S. citizen, was indicted last week on 10 terrorism and weapons charges that accused him of using money and training from the Pakistani Taliban to plot his failed car bombing. His plea of guilty to all 10 counts (five more than originally specified) could land the 30-year-old father of two in prison for life.
Shahzad's plot fizzled, of course, when the gasoline-and-propane bomb he tried to construct failed to ignite in the SUV he'd parked near a Broadway theater. That's typical, say many experts, of bombing attempts in the United States. Among the challenges of detonating a bomb on U.S. soil are the difficulty of obtaining high-powered explosives and of fashioning an effective explosive from the sort of products that are easily available.
That Shahzad wasn't successful doesn't mean he's not a terrorist, however. And what's critical about this case is that skilled law enforcement officials knew that even though his attempt failed, Shahzad was a potential treasure trove of information about the Pakistani Taliban and their operations. And they've exploited that well: after his arrest, Shaizad reportedly cooperated with law enforcement and answered their questions for two weeks before even requesting a lawyer. His arraignment was postponed several times even after a lawyer was appointed to represent him, indicating that even with a lawyer he continued to cooperate, with the process culminating in today's guilty plea.
Shahzad's cooperation has so far lead to the arrest of a Pakistani army major in Islamabad who was allegedly in contact with Shahzad by cell phone. Three men have also been arrested in the United States on immigration charges for allegedly helping Shahzad import money from Pakistan.
Administration critics such as John McCain insisted after Shahzad's arrest that he should never have been read his Miranda rights or treated as a common criminal. Indeed, a bill McCain introduced in March, the Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act, would have prevented that. The bill would require all terror suspects such as Shahzad to be turned over to the military for interrogation and possibly indefinite dentition without trial. There would be no Miranda rights, no right to a lawyer and no right to remain silent.
Although it's theoretically possible that military interrogators handling a suspect that way could get useful information, it's not clear exactly how or why that would work. For one thing, military interrogators are trained to gather information on a battlefield, not for future prosecution. That means the evidence can easily be compromised, making it impossible to prosecute the suspect later. That also means the interrogator loses the leverage a future prosecution can offer.
The administration, of course, has said that it can hold indefinitely any suspects it deems "alien enemy belligerents." But that also works against encouraging cooperation. After all, if a suspect knows that acknowledging his participation in the plot could land him in indefinite detention without charge or trial, what incentive does he have to cooperate?
One reason the FBI has been so successful is terrorism cases is that by following the federal court rules, it reserves its ability to criminally prosecute any terrorism suspect. It doesn't have to worry that the evidence won't be admissible later. The suspect, meanwhile, knows he's headed to court, and that the person interrogating him can influence what the charges and the sentence will be. That provides a strong incentive to cooperate and provide as much information as possible, in the hopes of getting some sort of a break -- a few decades in prison, say, instead of life.
Still, critics such as Liz Cheney and Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Joseph Lieberman continue to argue that treating suspected terrorists as criminals isn't being tough enough, and demand military detention.
But just because something's run by the military doesn't make it any tougher. On the contrary, the military commissions created to try suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay have managed to convict only three terrorists in eight years -- and two are already out free. The criminal justice system, on the other hand, has convicted some 400 terrorists since September 11, 2001.
Faisal Shahzad's guilty plea today is a perfect example of how the system works, producing valuable intelligence while still landing convicted terrorists behind bars.
The U.S. faces a very real threat of terrorism, whether at home or abroad. But the solution to the threat isn't to do away with the most effective means we have of combating it.
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