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May 18, 2012

Federal Courts are Time-Tested Method for Prosecuting Terror Suspects, Says National Counterterrorism Center Director

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center

In rare public remarks, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, praised U.S. federal courts as a viable option for prosecuting terrorists, while addressing attendees of an _ Standing Committee on Law and National Security program in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

“Our criminal justice system has been criticized by some as an inappropriate venue for prosecuting terror suspects, but federal courts are a time-tested method for bringing justice to those who pose a threat to our security,” said Olsen.

“Our courts are respected at home and around the world. The argument that they’re somehow inadequate or ill-suited is contrary to the facts,” he continued.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Olsen said the U.S. Department of Justice has successfully prosecuted “literally hundreds of terrorists in federal courts,” citing the prosecutions of Faisal Shahzad, the terrorist behind an attempted car bomb attack in Times Square, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day 2009 airline bomber.

Although Olsen encouraged the use of federal courts in prosecuting terrorists, he explained that military commissions can also be effective and fair in trying suspected terrorists.

“Military commissions have protections in place to ensure fair trials and we should not hesitate to use them when they are the better form,” Olsen explained.

His core message, however, was that the prosecution of suspected terrorists is an area of counterterrorism that requires flexibility.

“We shouldn’t tie the hands of counterterrorism professionals including prosecutors by insisting they use the same rules for every case… We should be relentlessly pragmatic; we should give them the ability to assess specific circumstances, the case, the facts of the law, and to make decisions based on that and what’s in the best interest of the security of the United States,” he explained.

Olsen concluded by saying “this approach has served us well in the past and is not only an ideological position, but it is a practical one based on what has worked.”

Olsen has an extensive background in the areas of national security and counterterrorism. Before he was confirmed as director by the U.S. Senate in August 2011, Olsen served as the general counsel for the National Security Agency, where he was the chief legal officer and the principal legal adviser to the NSA director. He previously served in the Department of Justice as an associate deputy attorney general and was responsible for supervising and coordinating national security and criminal matters. He also was special counselor to the attorney general and executive director of the Guantanamo Review Task Force. In 2009 he managed the interagency process to implement the president’s executive order calling for a comprehensive review of the intelligence pertaining to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

A podcast of Olsen’s remarks can be found here.

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