Those on Capitol Hill and elsewhere who have been complaining of U.S. policy on the detention of enemy combatants got a wake-up call this week. It appears that one of the Iraqi men who bombed three Jordanian hotels on Nov. 11, killing 57, may have been in U.S. custody in Iraq for a time but was released. The U.S. military has confirmed that it picked up a man named Safaa Mohammed Ali in November 2004 and held him for two weeks. When authorities could find no reason to keep the man, they let him go. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson told reporters, "A review of the circumstances of his capture by the unit determined there was no compelling evidence that he was a threat to the security of Iraq and he was therefore released."
Although officials can't confirm that the man they detained is the same person as the bomber, despite identical names, the bomber's relatives in Fallujah say he was. Indeed, all of the bombers, including a fourth would-be bomber, a woman whose device did not detonate, are from the Fallujah area. The female, who is now being held and questioned by Jordanian security, is already providing ample evidence that these terrorists were intimately involved in the Iraqi insurgency led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist who has been responsible for thousands of Iraqi and American deaths.
It's impossible to know whether the attacks in Jordan could have been prevented if the United States had been able to get more information from the man they held last year. But one thing is certain: Treating enemy combatants and suspected terrorists as if they are common criminals deserving of all the protections of the American judicial system is dangerous. The presumption of innocence is important in the criminal context -- indeed, it is one of the foundations of our legal system. But in a war in which our enemy doesn't wear uniforms, doesn't fight under a foreign flag, and targets civilians as a primary military strategy, we cannot afford to confer on the enemy the same rights and protections we grant ordinary criminals or even military adversaries in a traditional conflict.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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