Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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By ordering the closure of the Guantanamo Bay terrorist detention camp and ordering a review of methods used to hold and interrogate terrorist suspects, President Barack Obama has reignited a critical national security debate.
The question: Should foreign nationals suspected of terrorist acts be treated as criminals with rights granted American citizens by the U.S. Constitution or as enemy combatants not entitled those safeguards?
For me, the answer is clear. Foreign nationals suspected of terrorism should not be granted the same constitutional protections received by U.S. citizens charged with a crime. My belief is founded upon a case I investigated more than a decade ago while working as a private detective in Washington, D.C.
In June 1997, during the Clinton administration, I was appointed by a federal judge to serve as Hani al-Sayegh's investigator. Al-Sayegh, a reputed member of Saudi Hezbollah and later linked to al-Qaeda by the 9-11 Commission, was arrested in Canada and turned over to the United States.
An indictment charged al-Sayegh with attempting to murder U.S. nationals while he lived in Saudi Arabia. He also was implicated - but not indicted - in the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. The truck bomb carrying 5,000 pounds of explosives murdered 19 American airmen.
Following arraignment, al-Sayegh was held at a safe house, instead of a jail, because he'd agreed to cooperate in the investigation of the Khobar Towers attack. Intelligence officials also thought he could provide information about Hezbollah and Iranian-sponsored terrorism. Because al-Sayegh was classified by the Clinton administration as a criminal defendant - instead of as an enemy combatant - he was entitled to full constitutional protections and legal representation.
In order to meet with al-Sayegh, his attorney and I would stand on always changing street corners at times pre-arranged with the U.S. Marshals Service. An unmarked van accompanied by escort vehicles would suddenly pull to a stop, and we'd get in the back. With blackened windows and a wall separating the driver's area, we couldn't see out of the van.
An agent with an assault rifle sat with us in back while other armed agents were up front and in the escort vehicles. A helicopter monitored our course. At times, we'd change vehicles in garages before continuing to the safe house. Upon reaching the safe house, we'd exit the van in the garage, so we'd have no clue where al-Sayegh was secreted.
Based on the extensive effort to protect al-Sayegh, our knowledge gained in the case and concurrent international reporting by The New York Times and The Washington Post, it was clear the Clinton administration thought they had snagged a significant figure with insight to Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
Unfortunately, al-Sayegh reversed course and decided to not cooperate. Instead, he entered a not guilty plea and stopped talking to intelligence agents. At that point, he was moved from the relative freedom of the safe house and into the D.C. jail.
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration, having classified al-Sayegh as a criminal defendant entitled to constitutional safeguards, was frantically attempting to get the Saudi and Iranian governments to provide evidence with which to prosecute al-Sayegh. Both governments turned the administration down - even after President Clinton appealed personally for help. In October 1997, all charges were dismissed against al-Sayegh because of a lack of admissible evidence.
In June 2001, the Bush administration succeeded in gathering enough evidence to indict and prosecute al-Sayegh - along with 13 others - for the Khobar Towers bombing, but it was too late. Al-Sayegh had been deported to Saudi Arabia - where he remains today - by the Clinton administration.
Three months later, when al-Qaeda struck Sept. 11, the Bush administration decided foreign terrorists no longer would be treated as criminal defendants with constitutional rights, but instead would be held as enemy combatants with limited rights. No doubt that decision was reached in part because of flaws exposed by the al-Sayegh case.
Based on my experience with al-Sayegh, I believe Bush was correct in his decision to stop treating terrorists as criminals. I also believe history will reveal the Bush doctrine on enemy combatants saved lives.
As President Obama grapples with how to handle those incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, I hope he will act as a Commander in Chief focused on protecting Americans from terrorism, not as a law professor concerned with the rights of criminals.