An Intelligent Way to Enhance National Security?

Ever since the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest airline carrier on Christmas Day, critics have been pressing to militarize the treatment of all terrorism suspects and deny them the basic due process rights provided by the law.

On Tuesday, bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate to require the Attorney General to consult with the Director of National Intelligence, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of Defense before filing any civilian charges against a foreigner suspected of engaging in or materially supporting terrorists, regardless of where he’s arrested. Senators Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine have also written to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to transfer the failed Christmas bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to military custody. And on Wednesday, six Senators wrote to Holder “in light of recent events” urging him not to try the four 9/11 suspects in a federal civilian court.

Political posturing to look tough on terrorism is not a new strategy for federal lawmakers. But the level of disingenuousness involved in this particular instance is genuinely striking.
After the State of the Union speech last night, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell complained that “this foreign terror suspect was given the same legal rights as a U.S. citizen” – as if foreigners have not always been entitled to Constitutional due process when brought to trial in the United States.

At hearings last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) called the decision to place Abdulmutallab in the federal judicial system "a terrible, terrible mistake when it's pretty clear that this individual did not act alone."

Sen. Lieberman called it "a kind of 'Alice in Wonderland' turning of the world of common sense on its head." And former New Jersey Republican Governor Thomas Kean, who led the investigation into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, said he was "shocked and upset" that Abdulmutallab was read his rights before being fully questioned.

Meanwhile at the National Review, Bill Burck, former Deputy Counsel to President George W. Bush and a former federal prosecutor, was “startled” by Dennis Blair’s and Michael Leiter’s admissions last week that “they were never even consulted about the decision” (his emphasis, not mine) to let the FBI handle the interrogation.

But is the FBI’s handling of Abdulmutallab, arrested at a Detroit, Michigan airport, really so shocking?

In fact, as these critics surely know, every single terrorism suspect arrested in the United States during the eight years of the Bush administration after September 11 was initially interrogated by the FBI, as was Abdulmutallab. Ultimately, every one that was tried had their trial in a civilian federal court. Only two individuals arrested in the United States were ever transferred to military custody – Jose Padilla and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri. And in both cases, the Bush administration, after holding the men for years in military detention, charged them as ordinary criminals and accorded them a civilian trial. 

More than 200 terror suspects have been interrogated and tried this way since Sept. 11, including Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber,” in the case most comparable to Abdulmutallab’s.

So as Senator Claire McCaskill pointed out a hearing last week, to start turning all terror investigations in the United States over to the CIA or the military would be a drastic departure from longstanding precedent.

The critics’ mantra since Christmas that offering terror suspects Miranda rights after an initial intelligence interrogation by the FBI dooms the chances of obtaining useful intelligence is also wholly unsubstantiated. Last week Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) chastised FBI Director Robert Mueller for allowing FBI agents to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. But as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a former U.S. Attorney, pointed out, an actual review of real-life terrorism prosecutions reveals that “very successful interrogations have been conducted and very significant intelligence information has been obtained from suspects who have been Mirandized.” In fact, sometimes giving Miranda warnings “is actually a part of an interrogation plan for that particular subject,” he said.

Cooperation of suspects arrested in the U.S. criminal justice system has led to invaluable intelligence about the existence of al-Qaida sleeper cells within the United States, training camps in Afghanistan, how to safely dismantle the device used by Richard Reid (the shoe bomber) and details regarding some of the most high-level terrorism suspects, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Hambali, the mastermind of Jemaah Islamiah, a terrorism network in Southeast Asia.

Previous Senate Judiciary Committee hearings have also revealed that FBI-led interrogations have actually been more effective than the far more aggressive ones conducted by the CIA and Defense Department.

In any event, a detainee arrested in the United States and held in military custody is still entitled to a legal representation.

Meanwhile, civilian trials have been far more successful than military commissions, which have won only three convictions in eight years, as compared to 195 in civilian criminal court.

None of this is to suggest that the Bush administration was ‘soft on terror.’ But it wasn’t very smart on terror, either. Not only haven’t most military detainees been convicted, but the detention of hundreds of suspects for years without charge or trial created a national security nightmare for the United States. Hundreds of Muslims were subjected to unlawful and ineffective “enhanced” interrogation techniques devised by inexperienced and unprofessional psychologists with no background in intelligence gathering. The use of those techniques fomented so much anger in the Muslim world against the United States that even President Bush and former presidential candidate John McCain eventually acknowledged that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility had become a liability for the United States and should be closed.

FBI Director Mueller made clear last week that the FBI brought in high-level interrogators who first questioned Abdulmutallab for intelligence purposes, and obtained valuable information, before reading him his Miranda rights. That’s part of FBI protocol for handling terror suspects. But to forbid the United States from trying terrorists as criminals is to force the US government to continue down the same reckless course that’s landed us in our current national security quagmire.

If there was one thing Senators agreed on at their hearings last week, it was that the government needs a rational way of deciding where and how to interrogate and try terror suspects, based on input from top terrorism specialists and interrogators. Administration officials have promised to create just that. But if the administration bows to political pressure and starts subjecting every terror suspect to CIA interrogation and indefinite military detention, it’s only going to exacerbate the current conundrum.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said the government can detain “enemy combatants” – now called “unprivileged enemy belligerents” -- captured on a battlefield for the duration of a military conflict. But the court in the Hamdi case was talking about the battlefield in Afghanistan; it did not suggest that the airport in Detroit could be a battlefield. To expand the definition that broadly would allow the government to get around the Constitution in almost any criminal investigation by simply declaring the target a potential terrorist. And what would prevent the government from throwing a U.S. teenager surfing Jihadi web sites at home in New Jersey into coercive interrogation and years of indefinite detention? Could that possibly comport with the U.S. Constitution, let alone international law?

Members of Congress pressing for legislation that would require the government to respond to all potential terror cases militarily are stepping onto a slippery slope they’ll likely regret if they can convince their colleagues to join them.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress to “put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough” and “reject the false choice between protecting our people and upholding our values.”

He could have gone further and said that rejecting our values actually increases the danger to Americans. Guantanamo Bay was bad enough; hundreds of jihadi suspects subjected to secret interrogations and indefinite detention on U.S. soil is hardly an intelligent way to enhance national security.

A World Free from Terror (Edwards is the way we get there)

Yesterday, John Edwards published an op-ed in the Sioux City Journal that concisely stated the basics of his plan for creating a world free from terror. Edwards originally laid out his counterterrorism strategy on September 7th in a speech at Pace University, so what he discusses in the op-ed is not new, but it is a smart strategy for not only combating existing terrorists, but also preventing new terrorists from being recruited by terrorist organizations.

There's more...

The OPR Report Is Only the Beginning

In reporting on the long-delayed release of the Justice Department's ethics report on the work of Bush administration lawyers who approved the torture of detainees, The New York Timeson Saturday wrote that it "brings to a close a pivotal chapter in the debate over the legal limits of the Bush administration's fight against terrorism and whether its treatment of Qaeda prisoners amounted to torture."

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said the report represents "the end of a 5-year internal battle" at the Justice Department.

In fact, the Office of Professional Responsibility report is just the beginning of a bigger and more important battle. Legal ethics investigators concluded that former Office of Legal Counsel lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee committed "professional misconduct" in advising the Bush administration that it was not against the law to torture, humiliate and abuse detainees despite longstanding domestic and international prohibitions against doing so. The battle now will be over whether the U.S. government will meet its obligations to thoroughly investigate what happened and hold the perpetrators accountable.

The final OPR report chastises the two OLC lawyers for reaching bizarre legal conclusions that were wholly unsupported by the law. For example, one of their memos claimed that torture was legal so long as an interrogator's goal was to obtain information rather than to inflict severe pain or suffering - even if he knew he would inflict severe pain or suffering in the process. As one OLC lawyer commented on the memo at the time: "The way it reads now makes you wonder whether this is just an anti-sadism statute."

Meanwhile, the memo's now-infamous definition of "severe pain" as necessarily "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death" not only relied on an irrelevant medical benefits statute for its definition, which the OPR report calls "illogical," but actually misquoted the language of that statute so as "to add further support to their 'aggressive' interpretation of the torture statute," the OPR report concludes. Ultimately, the definition could lead an interrogator to believe, the OPR found, "that pain could be inflicted as long as no injury resulted." It's the "leave no marks" theory of torture.

The list of twisted and inexplicable legal conclusions is long and impressive. In another instance, the lawyers relied on extremely narrow interpretations of the international Convention Against Torture proposed by the Reagan administration that the U.S. had never adopted. And they completely ignored far more relevant sources of law on torture, such as federal court cases interpreting the Torture Victims Protection Act, which found torture had occurred in situations far less severe than the brutal interrogation techniques being contemplated in these memos. In one case, for example, a federal court held that imprisonment for five days under bad conditions while being threatened with bodily harm, interrogated and held at gunpoint amounted to torture.

David Margolis, the Deputy Associate Attorney General ultimately overrode the recommendations of the ethics office to refer the lawyers to state bar associations for disciplinary proceedings, because he decided that the OLC's standards for referral were unclear. But the report of the investigators who actually read and analyzed the memos that authorized such brutal conduct as "waterboarding" (controlled drowning), slamming prisoners' heads repeatedly against a wall ("walling"), weeks of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and confinement in a cramped box with insects provides an astonishing look at how the lawyers tasked with providing objective legal advice to the White House on its most sensitive policies completely contorted ordinary logic and legal reasoning to reach the conclusions desired.

Justice Department lawyer Patrick Philbin at one point asked John Yoo why he included a wholly unsubstantiated section in one of the memos that concluded that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, can completely ignore any law he wanted - such as the prohibition against torture. Yoo said it was in the memo because "they want it in there" -- "they" presumably being whoever had requested the opinion. The memo never explained how the prohibition against torture could be construed in any reasonable way so as to conflict with the president's authority as commander in chief.

Whether John Yoo and Jay Bybee face professional sanctions (that's now up to their respective state bars) is far less important than whether we get to the bottom of what really happened at the Bush White House: who ordered these lawyers to come up with legal reasoning to justify torture? The OPR report suggests that David Addington, Chief of Staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, played a significant role. Who was he getting his orders from?

The OPR report is just another piece of the slowly-emerging puzzle of how the country plunged into what Dick Cheney has aptly called "the Dark Side," abandoning its most basic belief in human dignity and the rule of law to zealously combat terrorism in a way that's ultimately backfired; we're now less safe, and mired in a vicious and protracted war.

In concluding that Yoo and Bybee exercised "poor judgment" rather than "professional misconduct", Margolis emphasizes that "his decision should not be viewed as an endorsement of the legal work that underlies these memoranda," which he notes were "seriously flawed" and represent "an unfortunate chapter in the history of the Office of Legal Counsel." In Yoo's case, his conclusions represented a "loyalty to his own ideology and convictions" which "clouded his view of his obligations to his client" and led him to author opinions reflecting "extreme" views of executive power.

Yoo was among the very small group of lawyers entrusted to write these opinions for the White House because he was already known to hold these extreme opinions. That he ignored or contorted opposing views should not have come as a surprise to his employers; that's what he'd been doing all along as an academic.

It's clear from the report, too, that that's what Yoo was expected to do. As John Bellinger, the Bush administration's legal advisor to the State Department told OPR: "Yoo was 'under pretty significant pressure to come up with an answer that would justify [the program]' and that, over time, there was significant pressure on the Department to conclude that the program was legal and could be continued, even after changes in the law in 2005 and 2006."

Some of those memos were also being demanded under very tight time frames to justify particular interrogations.

So who asked Yoo and Bybee to write these memos, and what exactly were the instructions given? Were they pressured to reach a particular conclusion and provide a "golden shield" for illegal conduct that the White House had already chosen to undertake? The report points out that the OPR investigators were not able to access most of John Yoo's e-mail messages from the time period: "most of Yoo's e-mail records had been deleted and were not recoverable." Why did Yoo delete those messages, and what did they say?

Even Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Bush, read the memos to ultimately function as a "blank check" for the military to engage in illegal and unauthorized interrogation techniques. If that's the case, then not only the lawyers but the officials who instructed them could be guilty of a criminal conspiracy.

The OPR report, then, hardly ends this chapter of history; it only begins to open the book. Before we can really reach the end of this sad saga and put it to rest, we need to know much more.





Critics of Ghailani Trial Have Little Faith in U.S. Law




Critics of Ghailani Trial Have Little Faith in U.S. Law





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