TAMPA, April 24, 2013 – Civil libertarians seemed to have cause for relief on Monday as reports were released that Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been formally charged with the crime, given a Miranda warning and assigned counsel.
Some prominent officials, including U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, had called for Tsarnaev to be treated as an enemy combatant. The Obama administration indicated that it would prosecute the U.S. citizen in civilian court, but would invoke the public safety exception to the Fifth Amendment in questioning Tsarnaev before reading him his rights.
It appeared that justice had prevailed. Major news outlets reported that a bedside hearing had taken place, presided over by a judge, with counsel for the defense present. A transcript of the hearing is available online or in pdf above.
The bedrock legal principles that make America the “land of the free” had been preserved. Tsarnaev would be presumed innocent until proven guilty. He would have the benefit of counsel to challenge the government’s case against him, examine the evidence and cross examine any witnesses.
He would not be subject to punishment until he had been proven guilty in an adversarial proceeding, rather than merely accused.
There was only one problem. We now know that Tsarnaev had already confessed to the crime.
So, Tsarnaev had the right to remain silent only after there was no longer any reason to remain silent. That defeats the whole purpose of the Fifth Amendment. One of the reasons it was established was the routine use of torture in obtaining confessions in the Middle Ages.
So, how did federal authorities obtain Tsarnaev’s confession? Was he tortured? All we know is he was alone with federal authorities and helpless in his hospital bed.
It’s not like this is some paranoid inquiry into impossible circumstances. This is a government that has already admitted to employing “enhanced interrogation techniques” many times in the past. It has tortured U.S. citizens. Now, it is finding ways around due process. This is another step in the destruction of American liberty.
This government had already claimed the authority to declare someone an enemy combatant and, based solely on that accusation by the executive branch, to indefinitely detain that person without charges, without access to a lawyer or the opportunity to petition a judge for a writ of habeas corpus. There is no substantive difference between this and being “black bagged” by the KGB in the former Soviet Union.
Now, you don’t even have to be an “enemy combatant.” Even the kangaroo procedure the Obama administration employs to so designate someone is no longer necessary. The precedent is now set that a non-enemy combatant suspect can be treated the same way.
There is no evidence so far that Tsarnaev’s confession was compelled by torture and no reasonable cause to suspect it was. It’s hard to imagine him being waterboarded in his hospital bed with nurses and other patients nearby. On the contrary, he seems to have been treated humanely, perhaps because he was already severely injured when taken into custody.
That doesn’t change the fact that this government claims the authority to do so under an ever-widening set of circumstances. Any suggestion that this may be dangerous is met with the obtuse reply that “terrorists don’t deserve due process.” That begs what should be an obvious question.
If due process is the way we find out that someone is a terrorist, how can we deny a person due process because he’s a terrorist?
It’s not as if no one has ever been wrongly accused of terrorism. As Glenn Greenwald observes,
“As so many cases have proven – from accused (but exonerated) anthrax attacker Stephen Hatfill to accused (but exonerated) Atlanta Olympic bomber Richard Jewell to dozens if not hundreds of Guantanamo detainees accused of being the “worst of the worst” but who were guilty of nothing – people who appear to be guilty based on government accusations and trials-by-media are often completely innocent. Media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial.”
The idea that torture and denial of due process are acceptable merely because a suspect is accused of “terrorism” turns the entire foundation of American freedom on its head. If the United States is truly freer than other nations, it is not because of its representative government. It is because of what that representative government is not allowed to do.
Americans once understood that the federal government was not allowed to exercise any power that was not delegated to it in the Constitution. Over time, the government has increasingly behaved as if it may exercise any power not strictly prohibited to it by the Constitution or subsequent amendments.
Now, it claims the authority to exercise even those powers strictly prohibited by the Bill of Rights. Today it does so against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Tomorrow it might be you.
Tom Mullen is the author of A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.