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Schumer, Graham spar over ‘enemy combatant’ designation for suspect

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Two powerful senators – one Democrat and one Republican – sparred Sunday over what legal rights should be afforded the lone living suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

By all indications, the Obama administration is preparing to try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a naturalized U.S. citizen, in criminal proceedings that would afford the 19-year-old suspect the right to a lawyer and other protections guaranteed by the Constitution.

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But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued Sunday that it's still too soon to rule out the possibility of treating Tsarnaev as an "enemy combatant," a designation that would allow interrogators broader sweep as they seek intelligence from the young suspect.

"There's ample evidence to suggest this man was a radical Islamist and that he and his brother had ties to overseas organizations," Graham told Candy Crowley on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "We should reserve the right, after the public-safety exception expires, to look at him as an enemy combatant, continue to collect evidence, and if we find evidence, go to him … without a lawyer present to gather intelligence." 

Disagreeing with Graham, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) said law enforcers can get all the information they need from Tsarnaev without designating him an enemy combatant – a move that would only complicate the investigation with a thorny legal debate, Schumer warned.

"We don't need 'enemy combatant' to get all the information we need out of him," Schumer told Crowley. "We don't have to cross the line and say he should be an enemy combatant, which could be challenged in court." 

A Justice Department official said Saturday that the agency has delayed its reading of Tsarnaev's Miranda rights, citing a temporary public-safety exception.

The legal debate arrives less than two days after Tsarnaev was captured in a Boston suburb after a 19-hour manhunt shuttered much of the city. 

Tsarnaev and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, are the lone suspects in Monday's Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and injured another 176. The older Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police in Watertown, Mass., in the wee hours of Friday morning.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is in "serious but stable condition" in a Boston hospital, according to Boston law enforcers, who have yet to speak with him.

With one suspect dead and the other in custody, the focus has now shifted to discovering the motivations behind the attacks and debating the legal issues surrounding the coming trial proceedings. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined the legal debate Saturday, urging the Obama administration to treat the younger Tsarnaev as it would any other suspected criminal. 

"Every criminal defendant has a right to be brought before a judge and to have access to counsel. We must not waver from our tried-and-true justice system, even in the most difficult of times," Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU's executive director, said in a statement. 

Graham, for his part, emphasized that he's not arguing for a military trial, but only for Tsarnaev to be treated as a war criminal for purposes of gathering information.

"Anytime we question him about his guilt or innocence, he's entitled to his Miranda rights and a lawyer," Graham said. "But we have the right under out law – I've been a military lawyer for 30 years – to gather intelligence from enemy combatants." 

Such intelligence, Graham added, could not be used against the suspect in criminal court, "but it could be used to protect Boston, New York and the rest of the country from a future attack."