Here are four ways the Boston bombings are reshaping the political debates in Washington:
1. It has revived debate over the handling of U.S. citizens accused of terrorist acts on U.S. soil.
There is a political debate about what to do with the surviving suspect, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, should he recover from injuries. The Obama administration has said it will interrogate him for a period without first warning him of his right to remain silent and have a lawyer present, as an ordinary criminal defendant would be treated. This has upset civil libertarian groups.
Meanwhile, some Republican lawmakers want him pulled out of the criminal justice system and held by the military as an “enemy combatant” as long as it takes to extract intelligence. Senators Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, and congressman Peter King, who chairs House subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said the following approach in a statement on Saturday:
“A decision to not read Miranda rights to the suspect was sound and in our national security interests.
“However, we have concerns that limiting this investigation to 48 hours and exclusively relying on the public safety exception to Miranda, could very well be a national security mistake. It could severely limit our ability to gather critical information about future attacks from this suspect.
“We should be focused on gathering intelligence from this suspect right now that can help our nation understand how this attack occurred and what may follow in the future. That should be our focus, not a future domestic criminal trial that may take years to complete.”
Although the Obama administration’s approach is being criticized from both the left and the right, there is little reason to expect the Obama administration to change its approach. The administration has long said that American citizens suspects of crimes on U.S. soil will remain in the civilian court system. Moreover, there is no indication the suspect has links to an entity that the U.S. is at war with (Al Qaeda or the Taliban) that would be legally necessary in order for the laws of war to be invoked.
Indeed, Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in response to the senators in a statement Saturday that he didn’t seen “any legal basis” for a military process:
“I am not aware of any evidence so far that the Boston suspect is part of any organized group, let alone al Qaeda, the Taliban, or one of their affiliates — the only organizations whose members are subject to detention under the Authorization for Use of Military Force, as it has been consistently interpreted by all three branches of our government. In the absence of such evidence I know of no legal basis for his detention as an enemy combatant. To hold the suspect as an enemy combatant under these circumstances would be contrary to our laws and may even jeopardize our efforts to prosecute him for his crimes.”
2. The bombings may slow momentum for comprehensive immigration reform.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of eight U.S. senators unveiled long-awaited proposed legislation that represents a hard-fought compromise to overhaul the U.S. immigration system – including a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. President Obama had hoped to make the reforms the centerpiece of his second-term domestic agenda, while potential Republican presidential candidate, senator Marco Rubio of Florida, took a high-stakes gamble in aligning himself with reformers.
But the disclosure that the alleged bombers were immigrants of Chechen heritage brought to the U.S. from Kyrgyzstan and Russia by their father who claimed asylum by the U.S. in 2002, had led to calls to slow the legislation just as momentum was building to push it through. Several Republicans said the immigration system should be scrutinized to see whether more could be done to screen potential terrorists.
For example, Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana told ABC’s This Week that he wanted to “push back” the debate over immigration:
“I’m afraid we’ll rush to some judgments relative to immigration and how it’s processed so let’s do it in a rational way,” he said. “Just push it back a month or two… We’re talking months here, not years.”
But one of the policy’s authors, Democratic senator Chuck Schumer of New York, vowed not to let critics use the Boston bombings to delay the reforms:
“If they have a reason – a suggestion – as to how to change it [the bill] based on what happened in Boston, we’ll certainly be open to it. But we’re not going to let them use what happened in Boston as an excuse because our law toughens things up.”
3. The bombings will create debate about Obama’s national security record.
In his speech after the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama said the U.S. would continue to work to dismantle terrorist networks, and would “remain vigilant at home and abroad.” There is now a debate over whether enough was done on that front.
In particular, there are questions about the role of the FBI – who had interviewed the deceased suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in 2011, at the request of the Russian government, who suspected him of extremism. After their interview, the FBI said it “did not find any terrorism activity,” either domestic or foreign.
According to an FBI press release:
“In early 2011, a foreign government asked the FBI for information about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The request stated that it was based on information that he was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country’s region to join unspecified underground groups.
In response to this 2011 request, the FBI checked U.S. government databases and other information to look for such things as derogatory telephone communications, possible use of online sites associated with the promotion of radical activity, associations with other persons of interest, travel history and plans, and education history. The FBI also interviewed Tamerlan Tsarnaev and family members. The FBI did not find any terrorism activity, domestic or foreign, and those results were provided to the foreign government in the summer of 2011. The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from the foreign government.”
According to the New York Times, the FBI did not follow up on him after he returned from his trip last year to Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan.
(The record of FBI interview is reportedly the reason why Tamerlan Tsarnaev was denied U.S. citizenship, while his younger brother was naturalized.)
There will be scrutiny of the FBI’s actions. Republican congressman Peter King of New York today blasted the FBI during an interview with Fox News:
“This is the latest in a series of cases like this…where the FBI is given information about someone as being a potential terrorist. They look at them, and then they don’t take action, and then they go out and commit murders.”
King also called for increased scrutiny of Muslims in the U.S.: “If you know a threat is coming from a certain community, you have to go after that.”
4. The Boston Marathon bombings add new fodder to the gun control debate.
Proposed legislation to expand criminal background checks to all commercial sales of guns, as well as a proposed ban on assault rifles and large capacity magazines, were defeated in the Senate on Monday, despite campaigning by President Obama and family members of victims killed in the Newtown, CT shooting in December.
But with scenes of a lockdown and manhunt in Boston unfolded, supporters of gun rights cited the danger in Boston an example of why ordinary civilians are justified in seeking powerful firearms. Said a Republican congressman from Texas, Louie Goehmert:
“If you’re sitting in your home and you know there are only two possibilities for people coming to your door: one is law enforcement and the other is somebody who has already killed Americans and continues to do so, how many rounds do you want to be limited to in your magazine as you sit in your chair and wait?”
Meanwhile, gun control advocates say they will press on.