5-13-2010By Daphne Eviatar
Senior Associate, Law and Security
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Testifying to the House Judiciary Committee today, Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated his support for civilian trials for suspected terrorists and emphasized that Miranda warnings do not prevent suspects from talking. But he also repeated his statement, first made last Sunday, that the “public safety exception” to the Miranda rule should be “modernized” and “clarified” – although he never explained what’s wrong with the Supreme Court rule as it stands now.
“I can point to the facts and history which has shown that giving Miranda warnings has not had a negative impact on our ability to obtain information from terrorism suspects,” Holder testified this afternoon in a hearing that lasted most of the day. “There is a misconception that people have that a giving of Miranda warnings necessarily means that people will stop talking.” But “whether or not people will talk is not determined solely by Miranda warnings” but is based more on the rapport developed by the interrogator with the suspect and any advantage the suspect thinks he’ll get from cooperating, Holder explained. He added that Miranda warnings often actually help investigations because if a suspect decides he wants a lawyer, “the defense attorney frequently convinces that person to cooperate in the hope that a sentence would be lessened. So even if it has the initial impact of stopping the information flow, that does not mean that it permanently stops it.”
Some Republicans have been hammering Holder lately for allowing law enforcement authorities to read the failed Times Square and Christmas Day bombing suspects their Constitutional rights, and lawmakers such as Dan Lungren (R-Cal.) and Lamar Smith (R-Tx.) continued that line of attack at today’s hearing.
But even as he insisted that Miranda rights and civilian trials have been highly effective tools for fighting and prosecuting terrorism in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Holder repeated his recent statement that he wants to work with Congress to “clarify” and “modernize” the public safety exception to the Miranda rule.
In New York v. Quarles, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 carved out an exception to the requirement that a suspect must be read his rights prior to interrogation for his statements to be admissible in court. The Supreme Court said that law enforcement authorities may delay informing a suspect of his rights when there is an imminent threat to public safety.
That exception has been commonly applied in terrorism cases. In the questioning of the two recent attempted bombing suspects, Faisal Shahzad and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, both were initially questioned by investigators pursuant to that exception before being read their rights. Both provided information, and continued to do so even after they were told they had a right to remain silent and to representation by a lawyer.
In a letter sent today to President Obama, three prominent former FBI interrogators urged the president not to mess with the current Supreme Court rule.
“Legislating on this subject could very well result in rules that unnecessarily constrain law enforcement officials and hinder their ability to adapt to unforeseen situations,” wrote former FBI agents Jack Cloonan, Joe Navarro and Jim Clement. They added: “In our decades of working in law enforcement, including the years following 9/11, Miranda rights never interfered with our ability to obtain useful information or make prosecutable cases.”
Judging from his statements at today’s hearing, Eric Holder believes that as well. It remains unclear, then, why he’d even consider amending this decades-old Supreme Court rule – placing future terrorist convictions in jeopardy for years to come.
Holder also reiterated that the location of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators’ trial is still under consideration by the Department of Justice. Holder said he’s taking into account the reactions of political leaders and residents in the areas where it might be held.
Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, where Holder originally said the trial would be held in a federal court, today announced that he supports having the trial in New York so long as the federal government restores some $50 million in funding that Homeland Security officials recently said would be cut from New York’s anti-terrorism budget.
That funding could be easily restored by closing Guantanamo Bay. As Human Rights First pointed out in a recent video, it costs up to $125 million a year simply to operate the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. And that’s not including the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government spent to build it.