Two Republican senators questioning a Justice Department nominee Tuesday expressed strong concern over the acquittal of an alleged Somali pirate prosecuted in federal court in Washington and the implications for decisions to bring foreign terrorism suspects onto U.S. soil.
Speaking at a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing, Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Susan Collins of Maine both raised the acquittal of alleged pirate Ali Mohamed Ali, who’s now seeking asylum in the U.S. Ali’s case was¬†highlighted by POLITICO¬†earlier this month.
“Now is not the time to bring dangerous criminals‚Äîdangerous terrorists into the United States and give them the benefits of our criminal justice system. There is simply too much uncertainty following the acquittal that we recently saw, with the unsuccessful prosecution of the Somali pirate in federal court here in the District,” Chambliss said in his opening statement.
Collins later questioned President Barack Obama’s nominee to run the Justice Department’s National Security Division, John Carlin, about the Ali case and its import for the debate over when, where and whether terrorists should be prosecuted.
“We now have the bizarre situation where the failure to successfully prosecute a suspected terrorist pirate in federal court has now resulted in his seeking asylum so that he can stay in this country,” Colllins said. “What’s your reaction to this case and what is it saying as far as our ability to ensure that…foreigners who pose a threat to this coutrny should be handled, prosecuted in federal courts versus military tribunals?” she asked.
Carlin defended the Justice Department’s broader record on piracy prosecutions, but did not directly address Ali’s acquittal, the wisdom of bringing him to the U.S. for trial, the chance he will now be able to stay in the U.S. indefinitely. (Federal law prohibits officials from commenting publicly on asylum claims.)
“After the increased incidence of piracy in 2011, [there] were a number of prosecutions of pirates,” said Carlin, who has been serving recently as the acting chief of the National Security Division. “We obtained convictions in 25 or 26 of those cases. Piracy, not just due to that effort but other international efforts, has decreased but it continues…In general, we need to use an all tools approach where the Article III [civilian court] option is one of the tools in the toolkit.”
Carlin said that if he is confirmed he will try to provide “as many options as possible” to decisionmakers, but he did not say whether more consideration needs to be given to what happens in the event of an acquittal or dismissal.
After the hearing, Chambliss said he remains deeply troubled by the Ali case and views it as dramatizing the risk of trying terrorists in civilian court.
“That’s an indication of why we’ve got to be extremely cautious about trying any terrorist, and I put pirates obviously in that category, inside the United States under our system,” the vice chairman of the intelligence panel said. “Once we bring them to the United States, we have to put a whole different hat on with respect to how they’re treated. And it puts this administration in a very difficult position now because of that individual being tried in an Article III court…..We prosecuted him we thought he was guilty. A jury decided otherwise. What’s the administration’s position on that?”
“Obviously, I would feel strongly about not giving him asylum, but I think you have to develop criteria of some sort,” Chambliss added.
While both Chambliss and Collins portrayed Ali’s case as showing the dangers of using civilian courts to try foreigners, it is the acquitted pirate’s presence on U.S. soil that tees up the asylum claim. In theory, a defendant could also be acquitted at a military tribunal in the U.S., though it’s not at all clear whether a typical pirate would qualify for military trial. And even a suspect brought to Guantanamo could fight forced return to face a serious risk of torture.
Chambliss said Guantanamo would be “a pretty good place” for accused pirates and acknowledged that the core issue is whether to bring such suspects to the U.S. or not.
“That’s the hazard of bringing anybody on U.S. soil,” the Georgia Republican said.