What Needs to Happen Next on Drones?

President Obama should publicly disclose the secret drone memos with only the redactions truly necessary, as well as the facts about who has been killed. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Obama administration must follow the law on lethal force (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It’s been a hectic 24 hours on the Obama administration’s use of drones and lethal force. As I write this, Senator Paul has accepted Attorney General Holder’s answer about drone strikes on US soil and the Senate has confirmed John Brennan—one of the architects of the drone killing program—as Director of the CIA. There’s a lot to unpack about what’s happened and where things stand now.

But I want to focus on what should happen next to make sure that no person—US citizen or anyone else—is killed outside the bounds of law with a drone or other weapons.

1) The Obama administration must follow existing law on the use of lethal force.

Senator Durbin said yesterday that the administration is interested in working with Congress to pass legislation, but that misses a key point, namely, that the law governing any state’s use of lethal force—whether with a drone or a gun or most other weapons—already exists: international human rights law and, in the exceptional circumstances where it applies, international humanitarian law as well. The US government must follow the law.

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NDAA is Back: House Reaffirms Indefinite Detention

stop NDAA and indefinite detentionYup, it’s that time of the year again: the sun is shining, birds are singing, school’s almost out, and elected officials are trying to take our human rights away. It’s NDAA time.

What does that mean? You have two options:

1) If you’re an NDAA junkie, and already know that the Smith/Amash effort to improve the NDAA just lost in the House this morning, then sign this action calling for repeal of Sections 1021 & 1022.

2) If you have no idea what I’m talking about then keep reading for an NDAA 101.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is an important piece of legislation passed every year to authorize defense expenditures. In and of itself, it’s not a big deal. But it often gets hijacked for other purposes (see Wikipedia entry for Pork barrel) and sometimes for really bad ones–and thus our story begins.

Last year a bipartisan group led by Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ) passed amendments to the 2012 NDAA that dealt with how the government detains suspected terrorists. The detention provisions, specifically Sections 1021 and 1022–signed in to law with the rest of the NDAA by President Obama on New Year’s eve while most of us were in Times Square–further entrenched indefinite detention, discrimination based on citizenship, and the paradigm of global unending war in US law.

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A Common-Sense Approach to Torture

President Obama again displayed in his speech today on national security that he is an exceptionally gifted and thoughtful politician who cares about the rule of law.  Indeed, there is much to admire in his remarks today.  So I can’t help wondering why he is being so obtuse about investigating torture. 

He says he wants to establish legal mechanisms for dealing with terrorists that will be useful for his successors.  “We can leave behind a legacy that outlasts my Administration, and that endures for the next President and the President after that. . .”, the President said.  Sadly, though, this vision of his legacy apparently does not include concrete measures to ensure that torture will never be carried out again by any of his successors, merely the hope that they will follow his example.  That is where his refusal to carry out his legal obligation to investigate torture leaves us — merely hoping his successors will be wise.

The President continues to characterize those who press for an investigation as vengeful zealots uninterested in constructive problem-solving:  “Already, we have seen how that kind of effort only leads those in Washington to different sides laying blame, and can distract us from focusing our time, our effort and our politics on the challenges of the future.”  The truth is, however, that many in the human rights movement who are calling for an investigation have worked most of their lives for justice and accountability for human rights crimes in country after country — Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and so many others.  These are people whose purpose is the opposite of ”finger-pointing” for petty partisan aims.

In any event, it is not up to President Obama to decide all by himself how to prevent future abuses in combatting terrorism.  We — the public, Congress, and officials in the executive branch — all share in the responsibility for this “mess”, as the President labelled it.  We must seek solutions together, and an independent, impartial, nonpartisan commission of inquiry is the logical instrument through which we can begin to make this happen.

The weakness of the President’s argument against an investigation is made all the more stark by its contrast with the cogency of his arguments against torture and for closing Guantanamo.  Moreover, his speech today marked yet another flip-flop in the reasons for his opposition.  Just a month ago, he expressed his preference that, if there was going to be an investigation, it be conducted by an independent panel, outside the normal Congressional hearing process.  He said that he worried about hearings becoming too partisan.  Today, however, Mr. Obama said that he was opposed to an independent commission because he believes “our existing democratic institutions are strong enough to deliver accountability.  The Congress can review abuses of our values, and there are ongoing inquiries by the Congress into matters like enhanced interrogation techniques. . .”

Well, which is it?  Is the President now saying that balkanized investigations by Congressional committees controlled by Democrats are actually preferable to a truly independent investigation by experts who have no political agenda?  I don’t see the logic in this view.  The President prides himself on applying rational, common-sense approaches to problem solving.  But rationality and common sense are lacking in his stubborn opposition to an impartial investigation.  We need to figure out how to ensure future presidents won’t yield to the same cowardly impulses that defined the Bush administration’s resort to torture.  Only a thorough, impartial probe of how it happened can lead to effective remedies for the future.

Macho Posturing Does Not Make Us Safer

Speaking to Politico last Tuesday, former Vice-President Richard Cheney opined:

“When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.”

Sadly, this is a sentiment that Amnesty International volunteers hear a lot as they engage in the debate on the abuse of detainees. It is also a line of argument that can be easily rebuffed.

The bottom line is that such macho posturing does the national security of this country no favors.  Due process rights keep us honest but they also make us smarter. They hold law enforcement, military and intelligence officers to a higher standard.  A standard that holds mere assertion, hearsay and innuendo is not sufficient to deprive an individual of his or her liberty; A standard that requires official action to be based on the collection of facts – evidence – that will stand up in court; That ensures skilled interviewing by trained and experienced investigators replaces mindless bullying and produces better intelligence; That guarantees fewer miscarriages of justice.

The former Vice-President is not wrong to highlight the threat from terrorism.  The threat has not gone away and, if anything, the Bush Administration’s policies over the past seven years have ensured that the threat is greater now than it has ever been.  Terrorism is the ultimate human rights abuse and Amnesty International is as steadfast in its condemnation and opposition to such tactics as it is to the use of torture and indefinite detention by government agents.

Macho posturing is no substitute for effective counterterrorism policies.  And passion is no substitute for competence.  Human rights standards keep us smarter and make our counterterrorism efforts more effective.  No democratic state that has betrayed these basic principles has ever successively defeated a terrorist threat.  Bitter experience teaches us that the war on terror can only be fought and won from the moral high ground.

Torture Might Be Necessary

CongressDaily reports yesterday:

“The House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat said Tuesday he has recommended that President-elect Barack Obama keep the country’s current national intelligence director and CIA chief in place for some time to ensure continuity in U.S. intelligence programs during the transition to a new administration.

Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said he also recommended to Obama’s transition team that some parts of the CIA’s controversial alternative interrogation program should be allowed to continue. He declined to say what he specifically recommended, however.”

Personnel issues aside, the Obama team needs to send a clear message, that it repudiates the fact that the US has abdicated a bipartisan position on treatment and torture that has spanned over 50 years. The US should adopt a single standard for the treatment of detainees and it should be based on the US Army field manual.

The notion that undermining this standard advances our national security is absurd, and based on a cartoon-like view of the threats and challenges we face. Everytime we hold an individual we put a mirror to ourselves and our values, and we should treat them according to the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.