The Obama administration made the right call Monday in announcing that it was charging Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in federal court rather than hold and question him as an "enemy combatant," as several Republican lawmakers and voices such as The Wall Street Journal's editorial page have urged.
As a naturalized citizen, Tsarnaev could not be tried by a military commission anyway and eventually would have been transferred to a civilian court. So the main argument for holding him as an enemy combatant was to question him for an indefinite period without a lawyer.
In the absence of a clear and imminent threat of further terrorism, however, we don't see how officials could properly justify dispensing with the suspect's constitutional rights.
"All of the information that I have, they acted alone, these two individuals, the brothers," Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said on ABC News' "This Week."
No credible authority has contradicted the mayor even as several other officials, such as the Boston police chief, have voiced similar opinions.
In addition, it's not clear Tsarnaev even meets the legal requirement for enemy combatant — that he is "part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States." His older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout last week with police, may well have fit the bill, given multiple reports of how he had become radicalized in recent years. But the younger Tsarnaev's own sympathies are less well-known.
Not that the Obama administration has been a total stickler in upholding the suspect's rights. We were disappointed to hear U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz last week declare that they would invoke a public-safety exception to the Miranda rule, under which suspects must be advised of their right to remain silent and to have a lawyer.
But even this exception, involving a day or two of questioning without the Miranda warning, is surely justified only in the presence of an imminent threat — which simply doesn't seem to apply here. And so we find ourselves agreeing with ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, who in a statement last weekend said, "Every criminal defendant is entitled to be read Miranda rights. The public safety exception should be read narrowly. It applies only when there is a continued threat to public safety and is not an open-ended exception to the Miranda rule."
We don't discount the usefulness to prosecutors in interviewing a suspect before he acquires a lawyer. But the courts eventually came to frown on the practice because of the threat to the 5th and 6th amendments — which apply no less to suspects implicated in great evils as to common criminals.