Get serious

Posted: Nov 16, 2005 12:05 AM

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.

 That is not to say that we should adopt the tactics of our enemies -- and we don't. No one is suggesting that if Zarqawi blows up women and children or tortures and beheads his victims, we should do the same. We are morally superior to our enemy and must remain so. But that doesn't mean we have to confer on our enemies rights they have no legal, much less, moral right to -- for example, formally extending the provisions of the Geneva Conventions to those we capture. Short of torture, which President Bush has made clear we will not use, we should be free to hold suspected terrorists captured overseas for as long as necessary and to use harsh techniques to elicit information.

 Instead of backing the administration on this, however, Congress shows no stomach for doing what's necessary. This week, the Senate unanimously passed a defense policy bill that incorporated language first proposed by Sen. John McCain establishing strict guidelines on interrogation methods for detainees, as well as granting appeal rights to some defendants convicted by military tribunals. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., argued on the Senate floor that such measures were necessary because "This is a war of values," which we can win, "without sacrificing our values." Graham's comments made for a nice sound bite but ignore the dirty reality on the ground.

 Zarqawi and his followers won't be dissuaded from blowing up more wedding parties or putting improvised explosive devices into children's toys because we suddenly start reading detainees their Miranda rights and making sure that they're not subjected to sleep deprivation or kept in isolation for too long. And it's naive to think that Muslim fanatics would love us -- or even ignore us -- if only we'd leave Iraq. This war will continue until one side emerges victorious -- and Congress had better get serious to make sure it is not the jihadists.