Tag: Guantanamo

The Politics of Gitmo

Arguing that “It’s been clear that the detention center at Guantanamo Bay does not advance our national security,” and that “It undermines our standing in the world,” President Obama has at last presented a plan to close Gitmo. The plan Obama outlined today was already well-known in most of its particulars. After transferring the 35 detainees already eligible and quickly reviewing the threat posed by the rest, the United States would then seek to move the remaining detainees to American prisons and military bases. 

The arguments for closing Gitmo are powerful. As Obama himself has long argued, the facility has provided terrorists with a potent recruiting narrative. The tortured policy of labeling the prisoners non-combatants in order to circumvent Geneva Convention prohibitions on torture and the need for due process violated both the Constitution and American ideals of justice. As Obama noted today, “Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law.” Closing the facility will not only deprive terrorist organizations of recruiting material it will also save the United States a good deal of money.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Obama’s plan is unlikely to go anywhere fast. In 2010 Congress passed a ban on bringing detainees to domestic prisons and there is little support among Congressional Republicans for lifting the ban. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan responded by arguing that “It is against the law – and it will stay against the law – to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil.” Obama might seek to close Guantanamo through an executive order, but the legality of that approach is highly dubious, and even the White House acknowledges that it is unclear whether that would be a politically viable route. Representative Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan)  summarized the sentiment among Republicans in Congress: “Submitting a plan to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay is yet another sign that President Obama is more focused on his legacy than the will of the American people. Republicans and Democrats are united on this issue: bringing the inmates housed at Guantanamo Bay to the United States is a nonstarter.”

The immediate beneficiaries of Obama’s plan won’t be the detainees; it will be the leading Republican candidates, all of whom oppose the plan. Last December Donald Trump criticized Obama’s plan to close Gitmo, saying “I would leave it just the way it is, and I would probably fill it up with more people that are looking to kill us.” At a recent town hall in South Carolina Ted Cruz argued that “The people in Guantanamo at this point, it’s down to the worst of the worst. A really alarming percentage of the people released from Guantanamo return immediately to waging Jihad, return immediately to going back trying to murder Americans.” And during the GOP debate in January that followed word that the administration was preparing a plan for closing Gitmo, Marco Rubio seized the moment to propose how he would deal with Islamic State supporters:  “The most powerful intelligence agency in the world is going to tell us where they are; the most powerful military in the world is going to destroy them; and if we capture any of them alive, they are getting a one-way ticket to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we are going to find out everything they know.”

‘Make Wall Street traders and CEOs fear for their lives, or at least for their freedom to travel.’

Recall the unionists’ siege of the Maryland banker’s home the other day? Perhaps it was inspired in part by this screed on the world financial crisis that appeared a little while back on the blog New Deal 2.0, published by the left-leaning Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Other advice in the same piece on how to handle execs from Goldman Sachs and similar investment banks: “Build some Guantanamo-like facility to hold these enemy financial combatants until they can be tried, convicted, and properly punished.” And: “Post the names of all managers and traders on Interpol. Arrest anyone who tries to board a plane, train, or boat; confiscate their passports; revoke their visas and work permits; and put a hold on their bank accounts until culpability can be assessed.”

Tongue in cheek-ism, evidence of a genuine impulse to dispense with the rule of law, or some of both? Well, judge for yourself, bearing in mind what sorts of rhetoric serve in accusing, say, the Tea Party movement of extremism and worse. The “braintrusters” roster of the Roosevelt Institute, incidentally, boasts such respectables as Jonathan Alter, Hendrik Hertzberg, appeals court nominee Goodwin Liu, Joseph Stiglitz and Sean Wilentz.

As part of a symposium the other day, the recently launched blog Think Tanked asked me to help define what a think tank is and what it should do. My advice on the latter was to “let ‘em rip” – the scholars and thinkers, that is – but maybe in the case of the Roosevelt Institute I’d advise making an exception.

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Gitmo Prisoners to NY for Trial

Today, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he plans to move five prisoners from Guantanamo to New York for a civilian trial.  Holder says the prisoners masterminded the 9/11 attacks and will now face the death penalty. 

Some journalists and commentators are calling this move a wholesale repudiation of the Bush policy.  Actually, no.  Holder also announced that five other Gitmo prisoners will soon be put on trial before a military commission.  Thus, the Bush framework essentially remains in place.  The Executive will decide on a case-by-case basis who will be held prisoner (overseas, Gitmo, here in the USA), and who will be tried in civilian court, and who will be tried before a military commission.

By way of background, these prisoner controversies (habeas corpus, waterboarding, trial by commissions) fall into three basic categories: (1) detention/imprisonment; (2) treatment (including interrogation practices); and (3) trial issues.  Today’s announcement concerns trials. 

If there is to be a trial for persons accused of terrorism, it ought to be in civilian court.  Courts martial are for persons actually in the U.S. military (the Fort Hood shooter).  Military “commissions” are a hybrid that is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution.  It is mistake for Obama to retain the commission system because it is (a) dubious to begin with, and (b) can be whimsical with respect to the people that end up there.  Even the former Gitmo prosecutor has voiced his objections to the system!

Bin Laden and his cohorts murdered some 3,000 people on 9/11.  It is lamentable that they did not all go down fighting at Tora Bora.  But we do have to have  policies in place for captures.  Boiled down, the U.S. should follow the Geneva Convention for prisoners and, for trials, the procedures set out in the Constitution.

For additional Cato work on this subject, go here and here.

Greenwald on the Arrar Ruling

Glenn Greenwald has a good post about Arrar v. Ashcroft, an appeals court ruling that came down the other day.  Here’s an excerpt:

Maher Arar is both a Canadian and Syrian citizen of Syrian descent.  A telecommunications engineer and graduate of Montreal’s McGill University, he has lived in Canada since he’s 17 years old.  In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was “rendered” – despite his pleas that he would be tortured – to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured.  He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured.  Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing.  I’ve appended to the end of this post the graphic description from a dissenting judge of what was done to Arar while in American custody and then in Syria.

Read the whole thing.   Also, the ACLU has put together a short film about the experiences of some prisoners released from Guantanamo.

Preventive Detention: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Glenn Greenwald writes,

By all accounts, the White House is going to unveil its proposal for indefinite detention within the next four to eight weeks, and it has begun dispatching proponents of that scheme to lay the rhetorical groundwork. In The Washington Post today, one of the proposal’s architects – Law Professor Robert Chesney, a member of Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force – showcased the trite and manipulative tactics that will be used by advocates of indefinite detention to win support for their radical program [anyone doubting that detention without trials is radical should recall that Obama’s own White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law”; New York Times reporter William Glaberson wrote that “Obama’s detention policy “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself”; Sen. Russ Feingold warned that it “violates basic American values,” “is likely unconstitutional,” and “is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world”; The New York TimesBob Herbert said that “Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention”; and the Obama policy’s most vigorous Congressional proponents are Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham].

According to Chesney, though, the real extremists are those “on the left” who oppose preventive detention; those who believe that radical liberties such as criminal charges, trials and due process are necessary before the state can put someone in a cage for life; those who agree with Thomas Jefferson that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Chesney insists that such people (these “leftists”) are (as always) the mirror images of the extremists on the Right, who “carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.” These two equally partisan, radical, extremist sides (i.e., those who believe in due process and trials and those who oppose them) are – sadly – “shrink[ing] the political space within which reasonable, sustainable policies [i.e., Chesney’s preventive detention scheme] might be crafted with bipartisan support.”

…This is how political debates are typically carried out in Washington by the Serious Centrists and Responsible Adults. Chesney writes an entire Op-Ed defending the soon-to-be-unveiled preventive detention policy without describing a single aspect of it. To Serious people, the substance of the policy is irrelevant. What matters is that anyone who opposes it is a radical, partisan, shrill extremist. Conversely, as long as the Obama administration stays somewhere in the middle of the two sides – between Tom Coburn and Russ Feingold – then it proves they are being sensible, moderate and responsible, regardless of how extreme and dangerous their proposal actually is, and regardless of how close to Coburn and as far from Feingold as they end up.

No system of justice is perfect. But it’s no improvement to decide that in certain cases we can just do better without one.

All that such a policy does is to move the act of judging back one level – and to locate it at the point where someone, somewhere decides that this particular case doesn’t get judged in the usual way. And so the accused gets “detention” rather than “trial, followed possibly by prison.” But we are still putting a person, and perhaps a dangerous person, in a cage, are we not? The acts of judging and of punishing are still there, and we have hidden them only from ourselves.

It is no improvement to shift the fundamental problem of justice to a different location – out of open courtrooms, out of review, out of established legal tradition – and into a shadowy realm where potentially anything goes. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that it is a step forward or a refinement in the criminal law to have its work done somewhere else, by someone else. The work goes on, and with it all of the associated dangers. Western legal philosophy has spent centuries forcing these dangers out into the open, so that we may confront them directly.

But oddly, Professor Chesney is actually right in one respect:

The problem is twofold. First, the national dialogue has been dominated by a pair of dueling narratives that together reduce the space available for nuanced, practical solutions that may require compromise from both camps. On the one hand, critics of the government’s policies promiscuously invoke the post-Sept. 11 version of the Imperial Presidency narrative, reflexively depicting security-oriented policies in terms of executive branch power aggrandizement (with de rigueur references to former vice president Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, David Addington; or Justice Department attorney John Yoo, if not all three). On the other hand, supporters of the government’s policies just as carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.

Second, individual issues in the debate over detention policy are often framed in stark and incompatible terms. Take, for example, the Guantanamo detainees, who are portrayed in some quarters as innocent bystanders to the last man and in other quarters as the “worst of the worst.” While both extremes are misleading, their influence is pervasive.

True enough. A reasonable middle position? Give the detainees trials in which they can individually prove their guilt or innocence. Surely they aren’t all guilty, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone claim that they are all innocent, either. The truth really is somewhere in between, and it just so happens that we already have a mechanism for sorting out muddled cases like these.

Civil Liberties and President Barack W. Bush?

It’s fair to say that civil liberties and limited government were not high on President George W. Bush’s priorities list.  Indeed, they probably weren’t even on the list.  Candidate Barack Obama promised “change” when he took office, and change we have gotten.  The name of the president is different.

Alas, the policies are much the same.  While it is true that President Obama has not made the same claims of unreviewable monarchical power for the chief executive–an important distinction–he has continued to sacrifice civil liberties for dubious security gains.

Reports the New York Times:

Civil libertarians recently accused President Obama of acting like former President George W. Bush, citing reports about Mr. Obama’s plans to detain terrorism suspects without trials on domestic soil after he closes the Guantánamo prison.

It was only the latest instance in which critics have argued that Mr. Obama has failed to live up to his campaign pledge “to restore our Constitution and the rule of law” and raised a pointed question: Has he, on issues related to fighting terrorism, turned out to be little different from his predecessor?

The answer depends on what it means to act like Mr. Bush.

As they move toward completing a review of their options for dealing with the detainees, Obama administration officials insist that there is a fundamental difference between Mr. Bush’s approach and theirs. While Mr. Bush claimed to wield sweeping powers as commander in chief that allowed him to bypass legal constraints when fighting terrorism, they say, Mr. Obama respects checks and balances by relying on — and obeying — Congressional statutes.

“While the administration is considering a series of options, a range of options, none relies on legal theories that we have the inherent authority to detain people,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said this week in response to questions about the preventive detention report. “And this will not be pursued in that manner.”

But Mr. Obama’s critics say that whether statutory authorization exists for his counterterrorism policies is just a legalistic point. The core problem with Mr. Bush’s approach, they argue, was that it trammeled individual rights. And they say Mr. Obama’s policies have not changed that.

“President Obama may mouth very different rhetoric,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He may have a more complicated process with members of Congress. But in the end, there is no substantive break from the policies of the Bush administration.”

The primary beneficiaries of constitutional liberties are not terrorist suspects, but the rest of us.  The necessary trade-offs are not always easy, but the president and legislators must never forget that it is a free society they are supposed to be defending.

Fixing Detention

The Obama administration performed another Friday afternoon Guantanamo news dump last week, indicating that it will probably maintain administrative military detention of combatants under a forthcoming executive order.

This is unnecessary executive unilateralism. As Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith point out in today’s Washington Post, this is a debate that ought to be held in Congress.

This would not be a tough push for Obama. The Obama administration already amended its claim of authority in a filing with the District Court for the District of Columbia, the judicial body sorting through the detainees remaining at Gitmo. Convincing Congress to ratify this decision should not be hard; the differences between the Bush administration’s “enemy combatant” criteria and what the Obama administration defines as “substantially supporting” Al Qaeda and the Taliban are minute. As I wrote in a previous post on detention definitions and decisions, the actions proscribed under these two standards and the activities constituting the “direct participation in hostilities” standard used in the case of Salim Hamdan are nearly identical.

The only positive news about the pending announcement is that the creation of a national security court specializing in detention decisions is probably not in the cards. As I have said before, national security court proposals play the propaganda game the way terrorists want to and often revive the prospect of domestic preventive detention of terror suspects, to include American citizens who would otherwise be charged with a substantive crime for domestic acts. The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief opposing this practice in the Padilla case.