Tag: military tribunals

Obama and Military Tribunals

Yesterday, Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, held a press conference and announced that Khalid Shaik Mohammed (KSM) would be prosecuted for war crimes before a military tribunal.   It’s probably fair to say, as some newspapers have noted, that the idea of bringing KSM to New York City to be tried in civilian court for the 9/11 atrocity was Holder’s “signature” decision since becoming attorney general–and that that idea is now dead.    However, Obama and Holder conceded a place for tribunals more than a year ago and they could never really offer a good explanation as to why some persons would go to civilian court and why others would go before tribunals.  Like Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, Obama and his people would just sorta decide case-by-case.

Conservatives are chortling over Obama’s apparent embrace of Bush policies, such as keeping Guantanamo open and reviving trials before tribunals.  Like the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, however, Obama has not stumbled on to the correct path.  He has instead shown exceptionally poor judgment yet again.  Two questions are now looming on the horizon.  First, prosecutors are anxious to have a lengthy 9/11 trial, but what if KSM calls the tribunal a farce and decides to skip the trial,  plead guilty, and then demands to be executed so he can become a martyr?  The tribunal might grant the wish, but the legitimacy of the military system may be called into question again–especially in the Muslim world.  Second, the Pentagon has made it pretty clear that anyone acquitted by a tribunal will remain a prisoner at Guantanamo (pdf).  There may be a legal rationale for that, but, again, how is that going to be perceived by the world?   As a start, one might consider how we would react if an American were acquitted by a court abroad, but was nonetheless returned to his prison cell to be detained indefinitely. 

There is no need to go there.  Obama should close Gitmo and transfer the prisoners to Bagram and hold them there, but with full transparency.  The Bush policies of secret prisons, secret interrogation methods, and secret trials before special military courts were wrongheaded and remain so.

For additional background, go here.

Tuesday Links

Thursday Links

  • “If financial institutions are indeed better than consumers at managing interest risk, then those companies should be able to offer consumers attractive terms for doing so — without the moral hazard of an enormous taxpayer backstop.”
  • We should be thankful that the president is spending time on his golf game.
  • After all, he recently reinstated military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay and has continued the use of extra-constitutional prisons in the U.S. after the Bush era.
  • It’s odd that debate here centers on a no-fly zone, a form of military intervention that shows support for rebels without much helping them.”
  • Does Haley Barbour really want to cut defense spending? Or is he just really politically astute? 

Obama’s Military Tribunals

This week Obama announced that he intends to prosecute prisoners before military tribunals.  The administration is taking pains to point out that Obama is not embracing the Bush policy.  These will be Obama’s tribunals, not Bush’s.  But since Mr. Obama’s executive order can be revised or withdrawn at any time, the new and improved procedures do not amount to much.   The tribunals were wrongheaded under Bush and the critique applies equally well to Obama’s “new” policy.

As others have noted, Obama has now embraced tribunals, Gitmo, and the Patriot Act.    Bad news, but at least Obama kept his promises to end the wars and get us on a sound financial footing.

For additional Cato work related to military tribunals, go here and here.

Playing Chicken Again

As I wrote in this post, Senators McCain and Lieberman proposed a broad piece of anti-terrorism legislation. The Enemy Belligerent, Interrogation, Detention, and Prosecution Act of 2010 would use military detention to incapacitate suspected domestic terrorists, including American citizens. This is a sea change in counterterrorism policy and a break from American principles that mandate a day in court.

This bill is a bad idea for several reasons. First, for the points that I made in my previous post, the civilian criminal justice system successfully incapacitates domestic terrorists. Our laws are built to do that – it’s the international nature of al Qaeda and the necessity of military force in the expeditionary conflicts we are fighting that make things different. Second, I doubt that this policy will be seen as a bonanza for domestic counterterrorism, and the agencies responsible tasked with using military detention won’t actually have much use for it. Third, and most importantly, detaining American citizens minus a suspension of habeas is unconstitutional and will be held so in court.

The policy prescribed under this bill is to direct anyone apprehended and suspected of terrorism into military custody for their initial interrogation. The bill bars them from being read Miranda rights, directs a high-value detainee interrogation group to determine whether or not they fit the bill as an unprivileged enemy belligerent (Military Commissions Act 2009 language for unlawful enemy combatant), and further directs authorities to submit this information to Congress. Anyone designated as an enemy belligerent can be detained until the cessation of hostilities, which amounts to whenever Congress says that the war on terrorism is over.

The kicker is that aliens detained domestically under this system must be tried by a military commission. Citizens cannot be tried by military commissions, and the jurisdictional language in the Military Commissions Act (MCA) reflects this. Basically, the government would collect a bunch of intelligence that is inadmissible in federal courts and then hold American citizens indefinitely. Also, detaining large numbers of Muslim aliens (who may have strong ties to local Muslim communities) and prosecuting them in military commissions threatens to radicalize citizens who are Muslims. The perceived double standard – commissions for Muslims in America, civilian trials for everyone else – is counterproductive when it comes to defeating terrorist recruiting.

I say that this won’t be a bonanza for the intelligence community because I see this scenario playing out in three ways:

First, it might work as seamlessly as the bill’s sponsors describe. This could be true if we already have a lot of evidence, the suspect is arrested, temporarily transferred for a short session of non-admissible interrogation, and then kicked back to the civilian criminal justice system (true with citizens, not with aliens). There’s an argument that traditional police interrogations could get the same (or more) information that the military can, because military interrogators do not have the bargaining tools such as snitching on co-conspirators for reduced sentences, plea bargains and the like. I won’t belabor that, since it’s not the point of this post.

Second, there’s the possibility that the military and the intelligence community won’t want to get involved in a lot of these cases, essentially nullification of what Congress would dictate with this bill. The FBI would monitor the communications of someone like JihadJane, have mountains of evidence against her, and have a case that supports the arrest of her co-conspirators overseas. In this case military detention is unwarranted, so the military investigator shows up, decides that the law enforcement agents have the situation in hand, and high-fives them on the way out the door. The bulk of terrorism suspects don’t have a wealth of information about other plots, so mandating military detention is tying the Executive’s hands by making counterterrorism agents jump through additional bureaucratic hoops when they take people into custody. I thought this was something that conservatives oppose.

Mandating military custody gets hairier in real emergencies. Imagine a parallel to the 1993 WTC bombing where the FBI knows that a cell is assembling a bomb but doesn’t sweep up the suspects before the bomb is operational and in a truck bound for its intended target. Agents lose track of the suspects, but quickly locate one of them and take him into custody. The new law would mandate that they first get the guy into military custody before asking him where the bomb is going. Besides creating an incentive to put military investigators (CID, NCIS, or OSI) on every Joint Terrorism Task Force in America (possible Posse Comitatus and 10 U.S.C. 375 issues with this and the rest of the bill), this doesn’t even guarantee that a military investigator is with the agents who capture the suspect that we need information from right now. Under the current “soft-on-terrorism law enforcement approach” the law enforcement agents can question the suspect directly and be assured that the exigency of the situation makes his statements admissible in court via Quarles, where the Court created a “public safety” exception for the post-arrest, pre-Miranda questioning of a rapist who had hidden his gun in a supermarket. A bomb heading toward the federal building or a shopping mall is a bigger threat than a revolver mixed in with the fresh fruit, and courts get this. If the course of action dictated to the people on the ground fails the “ticking bomb” scenario, it ought to be opposed by all armchair counterterrorism experts who take their cues from 24.

The third possibility is a worst-case scenario. Suppose we have an American citizen who gets taken into military custody, gives up a lot of information, but then won’t repeat it when he is kicked back to the civilian law enforcement system. Some will make the case that this is justification for an honest-to-goodness preventive detention system to keep such a person in custody.

This raises the question of constitutionality with regard to holding American citizens as domestic enemy combatants. More to the point, it resurrects the case of Yaser Hamdi with a differently-situated plaintiff. Hamdi was a dual US-Saudi citizen who was captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan. He was brought to the US and kept in a naval brig in Charleston, South Carolina. The Supreme Court heard his case and the plurality held that he could be detained as an enemy combatant, but that some form of administrative hearing was required to balance his liberty interest versus the government’s national security concerns.

Justices Scalia and Stevens dissented and got this case right (agreeing with Cato’s brief). American citizens cannot be held without trial short of suspending habeas corpus, and Congress has not supplied language to comply with the Non-Detention Act when it passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force after 9/11.

After all, President Bush’s military order of November 13, 2001 directs the Secretary of Defense to detain and try enemy aliens by military commission. The Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009 have not deviated from this language.

The court challenge that results is a return to the Executive playing “chicken” with the courts, and the Executive continuously losing.

Courts will distinguish domestic terrorism suspects from those who participated in hostilities on the battlefield. This was the reasoning behind Jose Padilla’s loss in the 4th Circuit. He had been on the battlefield and escaped, parallel to Yaser Hamdi and the Nazi saboteurs of the Quirin case. This distinguished him from Lambdin Milligan, the post-Civil War domestic terrorist who was ordered out of a military commission and back into the civilian courts.

Even those who disagree with Scalia and Stevens can count votes on the Court. The narrow circumstances in Hamdi are not present here, and the battlefield/civil society distinction has the potential to sway all but two or three of the justices. Kennedy indicated displeasure with the jurisdictional shell game the Bush administration played with Jose Padilla, along with Roberts and Stevens. Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer voted to hear his case even after he had been transferred from enemy combatant status to federal court.

The bottom line is that this bill mandates treating all terrorist attacks as acts of war and not criminal violations, when some are clearly both. It isn’t bad policy because there is no justification for military force – there is – it’s bad policy because it prohibits a pragmatic legal response to terrorism. If the law enforcement paradigm gets results for the threat, use it. The same goes for the military paradigm. But let’s not pick one over the other for the sake of domestic politics.

The Red Team’s Spin on The Christmas Bomber

In recent weeks, conservatives have worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over how the Obama administration handled the would-be Christmas bomber.  It’s a complaint you could hear again and again at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference: Mirandizing the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim was a big mistake, the story goes, because it denied us valuable intelligence, and it’s just so typical of Barack Obama’s callow, weak, law-enforcement-oriented approach to the terrorist threat.

As a constitutional matter, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Miranda decision, which smacks of judicial lawmaking, and I don’t think liberty stands or falls on whether one failed terrorist got read his rights.  In fact, I think Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was a pretty silly thing to do.  The administration could and should have continued to question him and gather intelligence (and it’s not as if you’d need his statements to convict when there were scads of witnesses aboard the plane).

Nonetheless, I still find it hard to see all the hubbub as much more than manufactured partisan outrage.

After all, Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber of December 2001, was Mirandized repeatedly by George W. Bush’s FBI, who, rather than questioning him for 50 minutes, read Reid his rights as soon as the Massachusetts staties handed him over. That was barely two months after the largest terror attack in American history, at a time when we had good reason to fear that the terrorist threat was far greater than it now appears to be.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall hearing quite as much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Right back then. Moreover, outside of the special pleading of former Bush officials, there’s little evidence that Bush would have handled the situation much differently even if it happened much later in his tenure as president.

We’re told that the Christmas Bomber’s treatment reveals Obama’s pusillanimous new paradigm for the War on Terror. But  virtually anyone who’s taken a serious look at Obama’s terrorism policies has concluded they differ from Bush’s mainly in terms of rhetoric, not substance. You can love the Bush approach or hate it, but if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.

Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, notes that the

premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.

For instance, Goldsmith notes, the Obama team “has embraced the Bush view that, as a legal matter, the United States is in a state of war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and that the president’s commander-in-chief powers are triggered.” Moreover, Obama’s Justice Department “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ‘associated forces,’” et al.

The abortive plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed near Ground Zero has to count as Obama’s dumbest political move since he tried to strongarm the Olympic Committee.  But it hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Bush approach to terrorism. When the Bush Team was confident of winning, they tried terrorists in civilian courts – including Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker (tried and convicted in Alexandria, so horrifyingly close to the Pentagon!). And since the Obama Team continues to use military tribunals, and reserves the right to imprison KSM indefinitely in the unlikely event he’s acquitted, it’s pretty hard to see their plan for selected civilian trials as a departure from Bush-Cheney – much less an attempt to curry favor with the ACLU.

James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s homeland security guru, isn’t the sort of guy who carries water for Barack Obama, but he recently told the New York Times

“I don’t think it’s even fair to call [Obama’s policies] Bush Lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.”

Atmospherics seem to matter a great deal to GOP partisans these days, though. Asked what specific policies Obama could adopt to reassure supposedly terrified Americans, Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee (formerly R-Derry), could do no better than: “I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often.”

The essence of King’s complaint seems to be that, policies aside, Obama isn’t stoking fear enough, isn’t talking tough enough, and seems reluctant to act the part of “the strong father who protects the home from invaders.” Forgive me if I’m unmoved.  Thus far the discussion serves to remind one of the fact that, though Republicans talk a good game about reducing the size of government, when the rubber meets the road, they repair to reliable political gambits that allow them to duck the hard choices: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance, Terry Schiavo, and the like.

If you’re sincerely concerned about the best way to handle terrorist suspects in the United States, then trying to score cheap political points isn’t the best way to start the conversation.

Obama’s Military Commissions

President Obama is expected to announce how his administration is going to prosecute prisoners for war crimes and perhaps other terrorist offenses.  Instead of civilian court, courts-martial, or new “national security courts,” Obama has apparently decided to embrace George W. Bush’s system of special military tribunals, but with some “modifications.”

Glenn Greenwald slams Obama for seeking to create a “gentler” tribunal system and urges liberals to hold Obama to the same standards that were applied to Bush:

What makes military commissions so pernicious is that they signal that anytime the government wants to imprison people but can’t obtain convictions under our normal system of justice, we’ll just create a brand new system that diminishes due process just enough to ensure that the government wins.  It tells the world that we don’t trust our own justice system, that we’re willing to use sham trials to imprison people for life or even execute them, and that what Bush did in perverting American justice was not fundamentally or radically wrong, but just was in need of a little tweaking.  Along with warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, extreme secrecy doctrines, concealment of torture evidence, rendition, and blocking judicial review of executive lawbreaking, one can now add Bush’s military commission system, albeit in modified form, to the growing list of despised Bush Terrorism policies that are now policies of Barack Obama.

Greenwald is right.  The primary issue is not due process.  The tribunals might ultimately be “fair” and “unbiased” in some broad sense, but where in the Constitution does it say that the president (or Congress) can create a newfangled court system to prosecute, incarcerate, and execute prisoners?

For more about how Bush’s prisoner policies ought to be ravamped, see my chapter “Civil Liberties and Terrorism” (pdf) in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers.