Once again we go back to the fundamental question of the government's treatment of terrorism and terrorists. Are they Criminals or Combatants?
To see how this is playing out, we could look at policy statements, but I prefer the approach that I learned in a government class long ago "The policy is what you do."
So what has this administration done?
On one hand, with intelligence about imminent Al-Qaeda attacks on the US from Yemen, the President ordered missile strikes against camps in that country. This is clearly the "terrorist as combatant" approach. A military operation to hit enemy bases. Clear
On the other hand, "On Saturday, a day after the failed attack on Northwest 253, federal prosecutors charged Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, a native of Nigeria, with trying to destroy the airliner with a device containing a high explosive attached to his body."
So what is the policy?
(1) Terrorists planning an attack at an overseas location are military targets. As such, the targets may be engaged and destroyed with US or foreign assets.
(2) Terrorist engaged in attacks inside the United States are criminals. As such, the criminal are afforded the Constitutional protections and privileges as US citizens.
So it would seem that, as Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate, "This president likes to have it both ways: tending to treat terror suspects as soldiers or criminals as suits his purposes." Of course she wrote that about President Bush. We know the problems his administration had trying to answer this fundamental question. The answers they came to were condemned politically and rebuffed by the courts. Didn't the Obama administration come to power promising to fix it?
Doesn't look like they've figured it out yet.
UPDATE: Dan Riehl is looking at the same issue
UPDATE II: A US News report on the president's comment on the attempt gives another example of the confused language,
"A full investigation has been launched into this attempted act of terrorism," Obama told reporters. He added: "Had the suspect succeeded in bringing down that plane, it could have killed nearly 300 passengers and crew—innocent civilians preparing to celebrate the holidays with their family and friends."
Investigations are something you do after a mishap or a crime. Suspects are accused criminals. Both uses are fine in a law enforcement context. But innocent civilians is terminology normally used in a military context; military or civilian as contrasted with law enforcement, criminal or victim.