McCain, Lieberman push military to handle terror cases

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 4, 2010 6:45pm EST

Senators John McCain (R) and Joe Lieberman talk during a news conference in Sarajevo in this February 5, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Danilo Krstanovic

Senators John McCain (R) and Joe Lieberman talk during a news conference in Sarajevo in this February 5, 2010 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Danilo Krstanovic

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two senior senators unveiled legislation on Thursday to require the military to hold, interrogate and prosecute certain terrorism suspects and also bar them from receiving legal rights afforded most criminals in the United States.

Republican Senator John McCain and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman offered the measure in the wake of the controversy over prosecuting the accused Christmas Day airplane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a U.S. criminal court instead of a military trial.

Under the proposed legislation, individuals who are deemed to be "suspected unprivileged enemy belligerents" would be held in military custody, interrogated for possible intelligence and tried in a military court.

A special team, known as the High-Value Interrogation Team, would recommend which suspects would be sent to the military and the final decision would be made by the U.S. attorney general and Defense Department secretary, according to the proposed legislation.

"These are not common criminals. They are war criminals and they should be treated according to the rules of the law of war," Lieberman told reporters.

The Obama administration has been under fire by Republicans for handling most suspects through the traditional criminal justice system as well as advising them of their legal rights to have an attorney and remain silent during questioning.

Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a commercial airliner with a bomb hidden in his clothes, was interrogated by FBI agents for about an hour before he stopped cooperating and he was then read his legal rights. Authorities later determined he had worked with al Qaeda militants in Yemen.

McCain questioned whether valuable intelligence was lost when Abdulmutallab stopped talking. "Americans are deeply disturbed by these failures. We are disturbed too," he said.

Obama officials have defended their handling of terrorism suspects, including Abdulmutallab, noting that they obtained valuable intelligence from him even though he was given full U.S. legal rights and charged in a criminal court.

They have also expressed concerns that some proposals in Congress could delay interrogations of suspects and that prosecutorial discretion has been a function of the executive branch and Congress should not restrict it.

President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats control both the Senate and House of Representatives, which could make it tough for the proposed legislation to move forward. However, some Democrats have backed efforts to require that the military deal with terrorism suspects.

Administration officials had no immediate comment on the proposal.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, editing by David Alexander)

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