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Times Square Arrest Reignites Debate over Terror Suspects' Rights

The US Supreme Court, Washington, DC (file)
The US Supreme Court, Washington, DC (file)

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The arrest of a Pakistani-born U.S. citizen in the New York City bombing attempt has reignited the debate over the rights of terrorism suspects in the United States.  Some U.S. lawmakers and political commentators say that even those who have U.S. citizenship should be denied legal protections guaranteed by the United States Constitution.  

The debate centers around a legal principle known as the Miranda warning.

It was named after a Supreme Court decision in 1966 that found that a robbery suspect named Ernesto Miranda had been wrongfully convicted.  The ruling said he was not made aware of his constitutional right to remain silent and consult an attorney before police questioning.

The Miranda warning is seen as one of the pillars of due process in the U.S. justice system.  But many people worry that in terrorism cases, it ties the hands of interrogators trying to get vital information.

"People are concerned, whether rightly or wrongly, that by giving Miranda warnings, as if this were just an ordinary criminal case, suspects may 'clam up' [i.e., not speak] and not provide information, crucial intelligence information about whether there are other attacks that are imminent, related to the one involved," said Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain called it a mistake that Times Square suspect Faisal Shahzad was informed of his Miranda rights after his arrest.

The debate over whether Miranda rights should protect terrorism suspects has raged since a Nigerian citizen tried to blow up an Amsterdam to Detroit airliner in December as it was about to land.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried unsuccessfully to set off explosives hidden in his underwear and was read his Miranda rights soon after being arrested.

Many Americans were furious that even as a foreign citizen, Abdulmutallab was given the same due process rights as a U.S. citizen.  The debate is now centered on Shahzad's status as a naturalized U.S. citizen and whether the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution cover all Americans - even those suspected of terrorism.

Experts say terrorism suspects often possess valuable intelligence on their organizations.  New York University law professor Richard Pildes says interrogations to obtain incriminating evidence are allowed without Miranda rights, if public safety is threatened.  The problem, he says, is that such circumstances are hard to define.

"It's easy to say there's reason to believe there's a public safety threat if there's a loaded gun, you know, in the corner or a bomb about to go off.  But suppose what you're concerned about with terror suspects is getting as much information as you can from them, about who they're connected to in Pakistan or what the organizational structure is.  It's not obvious that that falls into that public safety exception to Miranda," said Pildes.

President Barack Obama says he wants to uphold America's core legal guarantees in the fight against terrorism.  But after the Times Square and last December's bombing attempts, experts say the Obama administration is learning how difficult that is to do as it seeks to balance order and justice.  


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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