Transcript: Sen. John McCain’s floor speech on the Obama administration’s handling of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Transcript of remarks by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Obama administration’s handling of Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, on April 23, 2013:

There has been some misunderstanding about the position that the Senator from South Carolina and I have taken on the detention and interrogation of the suspect in the Boston bombing. None of us is saying that the suspect should be indefinitely detained as an enemy combatant by the U.S. military or tried in a military tribunal. The suspect is a U.S. citizen and must be treated accordingly. And he will be.

What we are saying is that the importance of treating the suspect in accordance with his rights as an American citizen must be balanced with our government’s top national security priority, which is the lawful, effective and humane interrogation of this suspect for the purposes of gathering intelligence. The Boston attacks were clearly inspired by the violent ideology of transnational Islamist terrorism. So we need to learn everything we can about what foreign terrorists or terrorist groups the suspect and his brother might have associated with – whether they were part of additional plots to attack our nation – and what other relevant information the suspect may possess that could prevent future attacks against the United States or our interests.

Our civilian justice system offers a responsible option for striking this balance with American citizens. It allows the Justice Department to delay reading a suspect his Miranda rights if doing so is in the interest of ‘public safety.’ The Administration had rightly invoked this public safety exception in the case of the Boston suspect, which provided our national security professionals a discrete period of time to gather intelligence from the suspect without the presence of his lawyer.

However, soon after questioning him this way, the Administration recently reversed itself and read the suspect his Miranda rights. In doing so, the Administration gave up a valuable opportunity to lawfully and thoroughly question the suspect for purposes of gathering intelligence about potential future terrorist plots. Whether we will be able to acquire such information has now been left entirely at the discretion of the suspect and his lawyer. Put simply, the suspect has been told he has the right to remain silent; and, if he doesn’t want to provide intelligence, he doesn’t have to.

Is this a responsible balance between a citizen’s rights and our national security? The suspect had only been responsive for a couple of days before he was read his Miranda rights, and even then, he could not communicate verbally. Does anyone really believe that our national security professionals were able to acquire all of the relevant intelligence possessed by a suspect who could not talk in only two days? This is not a responsible balance between civil liberties and national security.

From the very beginning of this debate, the Senator from South Carolina, the Senator from New Hampshire and I have maintained that the Administration should reserve its right to hold the suspect as an enemy combatant for the purposes of gathering intelligence. That was not the only option or even the ideal option. But in light of the Administration’s decision not to continue questioning the suspect under the public safety exception, the only option we are left with is lawfully questioning the suspect as a potential enemy combatant.

The full extent of whether the suspect is linked to Al Qaeda or its associated forces remains unclear. The brother’s trip to Russia should certainly be the subject of an inquiry. And additional questioning is critical to making that clear. But today there is ample evidence that would allow the Administration to question the suspect for key intelligence. The consequence of not doing so is that our need to question this suspect for such intelligence is left solely at his discretion and willingness to cooperate. That is not a responsible approach to the national security of this country.

Again, this is not to say that we must hold the suspect indefinitely in military detention – nor that the suspect must be, or should be, tried in a military tribunal. In both cases, there is plenty of precedent for holding a terrorism suspect as an enemy combatant for a limited time before moving him into the criminal justice system for the purposes of standing trial before in civilian court. What’s more, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the legality and Constitutionality of this approach, as well as the ability to hold American citizens as enemy combatants.

But ultimately, the broader question here is whether you view the United States as part of the battlefield in the global fight against terrorists. I know that some do not. I, however, do not know see how we can avoid this fact. Those who seek to attack us certainly view the homeland as part of the battlefield, indeed the central part.

Of course there will always be, and should be, differences in how we handle events in the United States and events overseas, and differences in what rights are due to American citizens as opposed to foreign citizens. And yet, we cannot afford to build a wall between the fight against terrorists abroad and the fight against terrorists who are trying to attack us here at home, including when American citizens are involved in this fight, as some clearly are and will continue to be.

Just because some don’t seem to want to grapple with the difficult, even unprecedented legal issues that this war presents does not mean they will cease to be real challenges. And if we pretend that the homeland is not part of this battle, I fear that it will only be a matter of time before we learn this lesson the hard way.


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