Commentary Magazine


Was One Week Enough Time to Interrogate Libya Terror Suspect?

Abu Anas al-Libi, the al-Qaeda suspect nabbed by Delta Force in a raid on Libya on October 5, spent the past week being interrogated by intelligence officers aboard a navy ship. Now he has been brought to New York to stand trial for his role in the 1998 bombing of two US embassies in Africa. This is bound to prove controversial with those who believe he rightly belongs at the Guantanamo detention center, followed by trial in by a special tribunal rather than in a federal district court.

For my part I am agnostic about the venue of trial and the issue of where he and other terrorist suspects are held–as long as it is possible to arrest them, conduct interrogations without having them “lawyer up,” and then to convict and punish them for their attacks. Whether those attacks are defined as criminal acts or acts of war is less important than the issue of whether they will be brought to some kind of justice and whether their full intelligence value is exploited along the way.

It’s hard to know whether this happened in Al-Libi’s case.

The administration gets credit for sending Delta Force to grab him, rather than relying on the dysfunctional Libyan legal system to arrest and extradite him. Give Obama credit also for allowing him to be interrogated (without, one hopes, being read his Miranda rights) for a week aboard a Navy ship–Obama’s substitute for the CIA “black sites” initially favored by the Bush administration. But one week is not a very long time to interrogate such a potentially valuable suspect. A thorough interrogation would involve establishing a rapport with him or otherwise getting him to talk and then crosschecking his information with other sources, going back to him to probe inconsistencies and lies, etc.

Let’s hope he sang like a canary and that his interrogators got everything out of him there is to know. If not, that would be a shame, because he may well have information that could foil future terrorist plots. And let us hope that the legal case against him is ironclad enough to guarantee conviction by a civilian jury without risk of having to disclose classified information in open court.

Assuming those two tests have been met, there should be no objection to the way the administration has handled him. But we don’t have enough information yet to say whether that has in fact occurred.