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The Globe and Mail

Obama faces criticism from all sides for terrorism suspect's offshore interrogation, civilian trial

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell addresses the media on July 6, 2011, in Washington.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

After holding a Somali terrorism suspect for two months on a U.S. warship, the Obama administration secretly flew him to New York for trial in a civilian court, leaving both rights groups and Congress infuriated.

The clandestine imprisonment at sea echoed Bush-era – and widely condemned – efforts to deny detainees constitutional protections while interrogating them offshore. Meanwhile, opting to surreptitiously bring the Somali to a U.S. federal court not far from where New York's twin towers once stood gives the President a chance to circumvent Congress, which has thwarted efforts to put high-profile al-Qaeda suspects on trial in civilian courts.

Ahmed Warsame, said to be in his mid-20s, is hardly a major figure. He is described as a go-between for Somalia's militant Al-Shabab group and the shadowy al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, located mainly in Yemen.

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According to U.S. officials, he willingly operated with interrogators on board a U.S. warship. Once they were finished with him, after two months, a "clean" team from the FBI read him his rights to keep silent and have a lawyer, but the officials said he waived those rights and kept talking.

But his capture, interrogation and forthcoming trial will again lay bare the raw and bitterly disputed debate over treatment of detainees in America's global war on Islamic extremists.

Infuriated by being kept in the dark, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell accused Mr. Obama of willfully defying the majority of Americans who, he said, want terrorism suspects kept out of the United States. "Why is it so hard for President Obama to acknowledge what the majority of Americans already know: foreign terrorists are enemies of America," Mr. McConnell said, adding: "They should not be tried as common criminals, but as terrorists in military commissions at Guantanamo Bay."

Rights groups lauded the administration for bringing Mr. Warsame to New York to face trial in a civilian court. But they were appalled by the months of interrogation on a warship. "There is little practical difference between the Bush's global war on terrorism and … the Netherworld that the [Obama]administration created," said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project.

The President's record is spotty on promises to scrap his predecessor's controversial practices regarding captured al-Qaeda suspects. His vow to shutter Guantanamo within a year was embarrassingly dropped. Plans to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide hijackings – were quickly reversed in the face of angry opposition. So was a plan to bring terrorism suspects to a disused prison in Illinois. So far, the highest profile terrorist trial on Mr. Obama's watch was the conviction of Canadian Omar Khadr, who was only 15 when he was captured after a firefight in Afghanistan.

Still, there are significant differences in tone from the Bush era. Only rarely does Mr. Obama talk about the global hunt for violent Islamic extremists. Last week, he did, saying his "top priority in each and every one of these situations is to make sure that we're apprehending those who would attack the United States, that we are getting all the intelligence that we can out of these individuals in a way that's consistent with due process of law and that we … we prosecute them in a way that's consistent with rule of law."

And his officials are insisting the latest capture and interrogation was lawful. Among the differences; unlike the secret CIA prisons established offshore during the Bush presidency, the International Committee of the Red Cross was told of Mr. Warsame's capture and visited him on the ship.

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