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February 01, 2018

Law Enforcement Interrogation of Terrorism Suspects

When terrorism suspects are captured or arrested, it is important for the United States to learn all that it can from these individuals to prevent future attacks and gain knowledge about terrorist groups and others plotting to harm the country. Law enforcement interrogations, rather than military, are the most effective method of eliciting this information.

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National security interrogations of terrorism suspects by the FBI and other law enforcement officials have a proven track record of successfully gaining actionable intelligence. Moreover, law enforcement interrogation often provides the best path to long-term incapacitation of such individuals.

Nevertheless, some politicians continue to promote the myth that terrorism suspects should always be detained and interrogated by the military. This myth is based on misinformation about the role and efficacy of law enforcement interrogations, and the impact of informing suspects of their right to remain silent and speak with an attorney.

Proponents of this myth often argue that military custody and interrogation is necessary for intelligence gathering because advising suspects of their rights, known as “Miranda warnings,” will prevent suspects from cooperating.

But the facts show otherwise. The FBI’s top priorities are counterterrorism and counter-intelligence, which means that eliciting intelligence is a major component of law enforcement interrogations. These interrogations have produced important intelligence about terrorists and terrorist groups and facilitated numerous terrorism convictions in federal court.

Moreover, law enforcement agents have tools that are not available to military interrogators, including the ability to offer plea deals and involve suspects’ family members, who can sometimes help persuade suspects to cooperate. Fears that Miranda warnings hamper such intelligence gathering are unfounded, as suspects routinely waive their Miranda rights or cooperate after being advised of those rights and provided an attorney.

This issue brief breaks down the facts on law enforcement interrogations. It provides examples of intelligence that has been elicited by law enforcement interrogations, explains why concerns about Miranda warnings are mistaken, and shows how law enforcement interrogation is often the most effective route for handling terrorism suspects.

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