Instead of sending suspected terrorists to Guantanamo Bay or secret CIA “black” sites for interrogation, the Obama administration is questioning terrorists for as long as it takes aboard US naval vessels.
And it’s doing it in a way that preserves the government’s ability to ultimately prosecute the suspects in civilian courts.
That’s the pattern emerging with the recent capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorist suspects, long-sought for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa. He was captured in a raid Saturday and is being held aboard the USS San Antonio, an amphibious warship mainly used to transport troops.
Questioning suspected terrorists aboard US warships in international waters is President Barack Obama’s answer to the Bush administration detention policies that candidate Obama promised to end. The strategy also makes good on Obama’s pledge to prosecute terrorists in US civilian courts, which many Republicans have argued against. But it also raises questions about using “law of war” powers to circumvent the safeguards of the US criminal justice system.
By holding people in secret prisons, known as black sites, the CIA was able to question them over long periods, using the harshest interrogation tactics, without giving them access to lawyers. Obama came to office without a ready replacement for those secret prisons. The concern was that if a terrorist was sent directly to court, the government might never know what intelligence he had. With the black sites closed and Obama refusing to send more people to the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it wasn’t obvious where the US would hold people for interrogation.
And that’s where the warships came in.
On Saturday, the Army’s Delta Force and Libyan operatives captured al-Libi in a raid. A team of US investigators from the military, intelligence agencies and the Justice Department has been sent to question him on board the San Antonio, law enforcement officials said.
Al-Libi, who was indicted in 2000 for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa, was being held on the warship in military custody under the laws of war, which means a person can be captured and held indefinitely as an enemy combatant, one of the officials said.