WASHINGTON – In the wake of the Times Square bombing plot, the Obama administration said on Sunday it wants to work with Congress on possible limitations of the constitutional rights afforded terrorism suspects — even for American citizens.
Attorney General Eric Holder said changes may be needed to allow law enforcement more time to question suspected terrorists before they are told about their Miranda rights to a lawyer and to remain silent under interrogation.
As the nation debates how to proceed against terrorist attacks, particularly as they have become the work of individuals who are difficult to detect in advance, the administration has been heavily criticized for reading Miranda rights to suspects in the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane heading for Detroit and the May 1 Times Square plot.
Terrorism has presented all sides in the debate with a delicate balancing act, protecting the rights of the individuals accused of terrorism while also attending to public safety.
Holder said the White House wanted to work with Congress to examine the 1966 Supreme Court Miranda ruling to ensure that law enforcement agents have "necessary flexibility" to gather information from suspects in terror cases.
The Miranda warning — a bedrock guarantee of a suspect's constitutional rights — has come under more intense study because accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad is a U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin. The administration declared on Sunday that he was working under the direction of the Pakistani Taliban.
There also was a foreign link in the case with Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused in the shooting deaths of 13 people last year at Fort Hood, Texas. Authorities claim he has ties to radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents.
Al-Awlaki, who lives in Yemen, also has been alleged to have ties to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to explode a bomb concealed in his underwear as his plane approached Detroit.
While asking for an examination of Miranda rights in terrorism cases, the administration contends that Abdulmutallab and Shahzad continued talking to investigators and providing evidence after the Miranda admonition.
At issue specifically is a 1984 modification to the law under which police were given leeway for more extensive pre-Miranda questioning under the "public safety exemption." But it remains unclear if evidence gathered from terrorism suspects under that exemption and before Miranda rights are outlined to the suspect can be used in court.
"And that's one of the things that I think we're going to be reaching out to Congress to do," Holder said, "to come up with a proposal that is both constitutional, but that is also relevant to our time and the threat that we now face."
John Brennan, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, said that Shahzad was questioned for about four hours before he was read his rights. Shahzad waived his right to having a lawyer present in subsequent interrogation.
Even while suggesting the possible need to limit the rights of terrorism suspects, Holder raised questions about bipartisan legislation introduced in both houses of Congress last week that would strip terrorism suspects of U.S. citizenship.
"There are potential constitutional issues with it," Holder said, acknowledging he had not reviewed "it in any great detail."
He added, however, "I think what people have to understand is that the system we presently have in place takes terrorists and can put them in jail for extended periods of time."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., defended the citizenship legislation, saying terrorist organizations were showing a pattern of using American citizens.
"Al-Qaida and the other terrorist groups are changing their mode of operating," Lieberman said. "And increasingly, they're looking for American citizens to carry out these plots, and one of the reasons is the passport that lets them — like Shahzad — come in and out of the country."
In appearances on ABC's "This Week" and NBC's "Meet the Press," Holder also said the Obama White House remained determined to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba while it struggled to decide how and where to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the planner of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
The administration originally vowed to close the prison by the end of last year.
Holder said the White House had asked Congress for funding in the next fiscal year to transfer the Guantanamo terrorism prisoners to a little used federal lockup in Illinois.
As to Mohammed, Holder said the administration had not settled on a place for the trial after New York City officials rejected holding it there. He also said it remained possible that Mohammed would be tried before a military tribunal. Holder had wanted a civilian trial in federal court.
Brennan appeared on CNN's "State of the Union," CBS's "Face the Nation" and "Fox News Sunday." Lieberman also spoke on Fox.