Sens. Feinstein & Collins Debate Terrorist Treatment

Sens. Feinstein & Collins Debate Terrorist Treatment

By Hardball - February 3, 2010

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Republicans have been criticizing the Obama administration for being too soft on the Christmas Day plane bomber, for reading him his Miranda rights and for handling him to the regular justice system. But now comes word that the terrorist suspect is giving useful information to his interrogators. So can Republicans really go after the president for how he handled the Christmas Day plane bomber?

Senator Dianne Feinstein chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. Well, that‘s the question to you, Madam Chairman, Senator. Is the case now up in the air again as to the best way to handle these terror suspects?


Well, in my view, it is not up in the air. I think what we‘ve seen is something very unique, which is politicizing it. This is the same way that Bush 1, Bush 2, Clinton handled it, and every single terror suspect was handled this way in the eight years of George Bush‘s administration. A couple were transferred into the military jurisdiction, but they were all initially charged when committing a crime in this country in an Article 3 court, essentially.

And it is just not true that the FBI cannot interrogate. I think the best interrogation that I have seen in the eight years I have been on the Intelligence Committee and the 17 years I‘ve been in the Senate is actually performed by the FBI.

MATTHEWS: We have reasons for interrogating people for criminal reasons. We try to determine their guilt or innocence, try to understand the crime itself. We also have intelligence reasons for interrogating people. Can they be performed by the same prosecutor, the same interrogator, that function?

FEINSTEIN: Well, they can be trained by people who are trained in this kind of interrogation. And the FBI‘s had a very good record. I mean, an agent, Jack Klunnan (ph), back in 1993, the World Trade tower bombs, he interrogated the blind sheikh, others. He got convictions and he also got people to turn on one another. It was a very successful interrogation, and it was not done with any enhanced interrogation techniques. So they know how to interrogate.

And I can tell you without going into detail because I have been briefed that the interrogation of Abdulmutallab has been handled well, it‘s been effective. Operations have been put in play. And I think it‘s been a very good experience.

Additionally, the attorney general today wrote a letter to the minority leader of the Senate, and I‘d really urge everybody to read that letter. It very carefully outlines what his legal practice, what his past practice, what this attorney general and this administration is doing. And I believe they are absolutely correct.

Secondly, I believe, though, that the administration should have flexibility in this issue and flexibility to determine whether the individual might be transferred toward military jurisdiction or not. But the point is, these are crimes committed in this country, and therefore there are certain legal strictures that do apply.

MATTHEWS: OK. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee. thank you, Senator.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: And with us now is Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine, who‘s on Homeland Security. Senator, thank you for joining us. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a letter today to you and some other Republican senators, quote, "Since the September 11, 2000 (SIC), attacks, the practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who were apprehended inside the United States. The prior administrations adopted policies expressly endorsing this approach."

How can you deny that the-this administration is doing something wrong, if it is doing something exactly the way the previous one did? Your thoughts, Senator?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): Well, Chris, first of all, that would imply that I agreed with the previous administration‘s handling of some of these terrorists.

It is ironic, to say the least, to have the Obama administration now saying, "We‘re just following what the George Bush administration did," when they have been saying that everything the previous administration has done was in error on most things.

But here‘s my point. I believe that, before a decision is made on whether to detain a captured foreign terrorist in a military system or in our civilian courts, there should be consultation with the intelligence community.

And I know, from asking the question of the director of national intelligence, the secretary of homeland security, and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, that they were not consulted before Abdulmutallab was told that he didn‘t have to answer further questions and given a lawyer, at our expense.

That simply does not make sense, given how critical it is that we secure as much information to try to prevent future attacks.

MATTHEWS: Well, here, I have a letter-and you have seen it-from

from the attorney general to you.

And he says-quote-"I made the decision to charge Mr. Abdulmutallab with federal crimes and to seek his detention in connection with those charges with the knowledge of and with no objection from all other relevant departments of the government." He goes on to say he checked with all the intelligence community and he got no objections about his course of action.

You say there was no consultation?

COLLINS: That is correct. And I would draw a distinction that it is far different to inform someone of a decision that‘s already been made vs. consulting with them.

It is clear that Abdulmutallab had a great deal of information. He had just come from Yemen. We know that Yemen is a hotbed for al Qaeda. We know that plots are being hatched against this country.

And what we had was a very brief interrogation, followed by five to six weeks during which time al Qaeda is not just twiddling its thumbs in Yemen. It is changing its plots. It is moving around. It is swapping out its communications equipment.

That was valuable lost time. And we could have learned information that might have been extremely valuable to helping to thwart future attacks.

MATTHEWS: OK. OK. I‘m open to your argument, as most Americans are. We‘re in a quandary on this. What is the best way to get information when we need it?

What would you do with the Fort Hood situation, where you have an American involved with apparently being influenced somewhat by a lackey over there on the Internet and having some communication with a foreign enemy of the United States?

At what point does a person become a foreign agent? Was Lee Harvey Oswald an agent of Castro, but he killed Kennedy because he love Castro? Was Sirhan Sirhan working for a Middle East government or terrorist group when he killed Bobby Kennedy?

At what point do you deny a person his rights in this country because you believe they are under the leadership or influence of a foreign enemy? Where do you decide?

COLLINS: Well, first of all, anyone put into our civilian courts has the same rights as an American citizen.

So, that is why that initial threshold decision is so important. It is ironic, because, in the case of the Fort Hood massacre, Major Hasan is going to go through the military system, a military court-martial. He‘s not going to be in a...


COLLINS: ... the civilian court system, because he‘s a member of the Army.

It seems to me, if that is good enough for Major Hasan, it ought to have been good enough for Abdulmutallab.

MATTHEWS: Well, how do you decide that someone is an agent of a foreign power or an enemy combatant? I mean, I went through the cases of our assassins in this country who were clearly operating out of loyalty to foreign masters, even if they didn‘t get direct orders.

I mean, everybody knows Lee Harvey Oswald was working for Castro-or was in love with Castro, that Sirhan Sirhan hated Bobby Kennedy‘s Middle East policy. They were operating as agents, even if they weren‘t.

Where do you draw the line and say, that guy really is an agent, or that person really is not? How do you know?

COLLINS: That‘s why you can‘t have a unilateral decision made by the Department of Justice, which is what you had in this case.

Clearly, the Justice Department is a critical player, but so is the director of national intelligence, Homeland Security, the Counterterrorism Center, the CIA, the secretary of defense.


COLLINS: So, what you do is a consultation...

MATTHEWS: Yes, I see.

COLLINS: ... with all those parties, so you find out, what information do they have in intelligence files that might well affect the decision on where the person should be detained and questioned and also tried?

MATTHEWS: OK. Well, they are very good arguments. And thank you very much for bringing them to us, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

Thank you so much. I think your arguments are winning with a lot of people.


The Incredible Shrinking President
William Murchison · November 18, 2014
Why China Is Cooperating on Climate Change
Steve Chapman · November 16, 2014
Obama's Beijing Surprise
David Ignatius · November 14, 2014
Our Gathering Storm
Michael Gerson · November 14, 2014

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter