WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s announcement that it would question the Boston Marathon bombing suspect for a period without first reading him the Miranda warning of his right to remain silent and have a lawyer present has revived a constitutionally charged debate over the handling of terrorism cases in the criminal justice system.
The administration’s effort to stretch a gap in the Miranda rule for questioning about immediate threats to public safety has alarmed advocates of individual rights.
Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it would be acceptable for the FBI to ask the suspect, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, a naturalized U.S. citizen, about ‘‘imminent’’ threats, such as whether other bombs are hidden around Boston. But he said that once the FBI gets into broader questioning, it must not ‘‘cut corners.’’
Tsarnaev remained hospitalized Saturday for treatment of injuries suffered when he was captured by the police Friday night, and it was not clear whether he had been questioned.
''The public safety exception to Miranda should be a narrow and limited one, and it would be wholly inappropriate and unconstitutional to use it to create the case against the suspect,’’ Romero said. ‘‘The public safety exception would be meaningless if interrogations are given an open-ended time horizon.’’
At the other end of the spectrum, some conservatives have called for treating terrorism-related cases — even those arising on U.S. soil or involving citizens — as a military matter, holding a suspect indefinitely as an ‘‘enemy combatant’’ without a criminal defendants’ rights. Two Republican senators, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, called for holding Tsarnaev under the laws of war, interrogating him without any Miranda warning or defense lawyer.
''Our goal at this critical juncture should be to gather intelligence and protect our nation from further attacks,’’ they said. ‘‘We remain under threat from radical Islam and we hope the Obama administration will seriously consider the enemy combatant option.’’
The Miranda warning comes from a 1966 case in which the Supreme Court held that, to protect against involuntary self-incrimination, if prosecutors want to use statements at a trial that a defendant made in custody, the police must first have advised him of his rights. The court later created an exception, allowing prosecutors to use statements made before any warning in response to questions about immediate threats to public safety, such as where a gun is hidden.