Bergdahl Brought Home in Prisoner Exchange

Over the weekend, news broke that the United States government had made the decision to exchange five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl roughly five years after his capture by Taliban forces in Afghanistan. While many have applauded the effort to bring home a captured member of the American armed forces, not everybody has been so quick to label this course of action “correct.” Continue reading

Congress Battling Over NSA Reform

As the debate over the NSA surveillance scandal rages on, two Congressional committees are now in the midst of a battle that will determine who gets the first crack at reforming the NSA’s intelligence gathering policies.  The battle between the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee will largely determine the extent to which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will be modified in the post-Snowden era.  While much is still unclear, a historical comparison to the Pike and Church Committees from the Cold War era may well demonstrate which stance the government should take on NSA reforms. Continue reading

How the Federal Shutdown Affects Security

As nearly every American has probably heard, the federal government began a partial shutdown last night just after midnight.  The shutdown is happening because the House and Senate have continually failed to reach an agreement on funding, and time finally ran out.  That means that all non-essential federal employees are out of work until this gets sorted out.  It also means that the essential workers are working without pay. Continue reading

Lietzau Condemns Guantanamo & Detainee Status

A few days ago, a story came out in which William Lietzau, the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Detainee Affairs and point-man on Guantanamo Bay, admitted that he would argue against building Guantanamo.  This came following Lietzau’s announcement that he would be leaving his post to continue his career in the private sector.  He also gave President Obama a pointer on how to close Guantanamo; announce that the so-called war against al-Qaeda has come to an end.  Lietzau, who was key in getting Guantanamo built in the first place, was quoted as saying, “[a]rguably, if the war aim of diminishing Al Qaeda’s ability to mount a certain level of attack has been achieved, we could declare an end to hostilities and return to dealing with the threat as a law enforcement matter.” Continue reading

US Embassies Close in Wake of Terrorist Threat

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the State Department’s response to an alleged terrorist threat this past Friday.  The State Department issued a travel alert to all Americans traveling abroad and even went so far as to close 21 foreign embassies over the weekend, 19 of which will remain closed through this week.  Although the embassies that are now closed are located mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, the travel alert covers Americans traveling to all parts of the globe. Continue reading

Inside the SJC’s Guantanamo Debate

Last week, we wrote about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on Guantanamo Bay.  The debate, entitled “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal, and Human Rights Implications,” brought together members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, including Chairman Dick Durbin (D, IL); Chairman of the Full Committee Patrick Leahy (D, VT); Ranking-Member Ted Cruz (R, TX); and Rep. Mike Pompeio (R, KS-4), among others.  Testifying were top-ranking members of our armed forces and members of international human rights organizations, including Major General Paul Eaton, U.S. Army (Ret.); Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, M.D., U.S. Army (Ret.); Lieutenant Joshua Fryday, Judge Advocate General’s Corps., U.S. Navy; Frank Gaffney, Founder and President, Center for Security Policy; and Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human Rights First.

Most of the usual Guantanamo-related topics were discussed, including arguments for and against the closure of Gitmo, what that closure might mean for American national security, and how we might go about transferring current detainees to domestic prisons or foreign countries for continued detention or release.  As we’ve come to expect, testimony from Congressional representatives was fairly predictable based on party membership.  Chairman Durbin opened the hearing by calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, stated that Gitmo had become an “international eyesore” and that “the Administration could be doing more to close (GTMO)…, [but] the President’s authority has been limited by Congress.”  Nothing too groundbreaking there, but it’s always nice to see someone in a position of authority acknowledging that this isn’t all President Obama’s fault.  Like I’ve said before, this isn’t a unilateral decision for the President to make.  It’s going to take a level of bipartisan cooperation that’s been completely absent in Congress in recent history.

But even if President Obama can’t single-handedly close Guantanamo, Chairman Durbin noted that through the FY14 Defense Bill, passed by the House Armed Services Committee in early June, he has an expanded ability to dispose of prisoners (calm down, disposing means releasing or transferring in this context) as he sees fit.  But we’ve seen problems with this as well.  First, where do we release or transfer these detainees?  Just a few days ago we saw Senator Saxby Chambliss voice concerns about releasing detainees to their home countries where they may attempt to join or re-join al-Qaeda.  Our European allies have a history of rejecting transfers of Guantanamo detainees.  And we certainly aren’t going to give them asylum here.  So even if the President’s powers to release or transfer detainees have been expanded, it’s still a delicate situation.

Ranking-Member Cruz was one of the few speakers to advocate for keeping Guantanamo Bay open, bashing the Obama administration for it’s policy and saying that we “continue to apologize for continuing the policy.”  Senator Cruz’s main argument was that we can’t embrace a “utopian fiction” where released detainees embrace global peace and pledge not to take up arms against the United States.  I could understand that concern if we were talking about releasing KSM.  I can understand that concern if we’re talking about releasing any detainee that we know was involved in attacks against the United States.  But I’m pretty sure nobody is calling for those detainees to be released.  So what about the detainees with no formal charges or evidence against them?  Are we going to hold them for the rest of their lives just because there’s a chance they could join al-Qaeda if we release them?  Apparently Senator Cruz would say yes.

Major General Eaton and Brigadier General Xenakis also testified in front of the panel, both advocating for the closure of the detention center.  Major General Eaton stated clearly that “[t]here is no national security reason to keep Guantanamo open,” and even went so far as to say the keeping it open this long has undermined national security by damaging our “moral leadership, political leadership, military power and economic power.”  Brigadier General Xenakis attacked the much-covered force-feeding policy, stating that it violates not only the basic ethics of the medical field, but also the Geneva Convention.

Rep. Pompeio joined Senator Cruz’s position, making the bold claim that “there are no human rights violations occurring at [GTMO].”  He also voiced concerns that foreign nations would torture detainees if we were to transfer them.  Now, I’m not saying I can’t see any reason behind the force-feeding policy.  I get that we don’t want upwards of 40 detainees dying of malnutrition on our watch.  But to say shoving a rubber tube through the nose and into the stomach of a fully conscious human being in an extremely painful fashion is not a human rights violation is borderline ludicrous.

The way I see it, the only semi-logical argument for keeping Guantanamo Bay open came from Mr. Gaffney.  Mr. Gaffney argued that Gitmo should remain open until a safe and effective alternative is pinpointed.  That much I can get on board with.  I already pointed out that there are some holes in the current plan.  But Mr. Gaffney’s seems to be worried about detainees escaping from super-max prisons on U.S. soil and rejoining al-Qaeda or remaining in the U.S. to plan attacks.  Is this what we’re really concerned about?  We already trust maximum security penitentiaries to hold our most notorious murderers, so why does it matter what their nationality is?  According to documents from the New York State Department of Corrections, there were a total of 10 escapes from detention facilities of any kind between 2006 and 2010.  That equates to a rate of .03 escapes per 1,000 inmates during that time period, and includes statistics from ALL New York state penitentiaries.  I, for one, am no too worried about detainees, who will probably have additional monitoring in place, escaping from super-max prisons.  Again, I agree that we need a rock-solid plan in place before we close Guantanamo, but the concerns cited by Mr. Gaffney are simply not realistic.

That’s probably a good thing since the plan proposed by Democrats involved transferring detainees to the same super-max facilities that Mr. Gaffney is so worried about.  Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) pointed out that it will cost tax payers roughly $551 million to operate Guantanamo Bay in 2013, and roughly $2.1 million per detainee.  According to her estimates, it would cost only $287,000 to house a detainee in a super-max facility here in the U.S.  Especially since the sequester hit the federal government, this would obviously be a much more cost-effective model.  So on top of potentially eradicating human rights violations, we might be able to take a step towards a balanced defense budget.

All in all, we are still in a stalemate.  The hearing was essentially a summary of all the arguments we’ve heard about Guantanamo Bay over the past 5 years.  Democrats and members of the military are still pushing for its closure while Republicans are standing firm on keeping it open.  I don’t know that we’re any closer to actually closing Gitmo after the hearing, but it’s good to see that we haven’t given up the fight.

***Special thanks to Mr. Rick Erkel for reporting on the hearing

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Senate Panel Debates the Close of Guantanamo

Yesterday afternoon, for the first time since 2009, a Senate committee took to the issue of closing the Guantanamo detention center. The hearing was called by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, and Civil and Human Rights. In his opening remarks, Sen. Durbin referred to the prison as a sad chapter in American history, a place he had “never imagined in 2013… would still be open.”

“Every day it remains open, Guantanamo prison weakens our alliances, inspires our enemies, and calls into question our commitment to human rights.” – Sen. Durbin

Sen. Durbin has long been critical of Guantanamo Bay. In 2009 he stated that he would be OK with accepting detainees into the Illinois supermax facility. Earlier this month, along with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Durbin asked President Obama to order the Pentagon to stop routinely force-feeding the hunger strikers, challenging the military claim that the enteral feedings were humane and modeled after the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Opposing Sen. Durbin’s request to close the prison, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) harped on the threat of detainee recidivism. Quoting from a recent study by the Director of National Intelligence which found that 28 percent of detainees previously released from Guantanamo were suspected or confirmed to have joined up with terrorist groups upon leaving US custody, Sen. Cruz emphasized the risk we face by releasing the detainees. In agreement, Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney stated that moving prisoners from Guantanamo to the U.S. could result in attacks on domestic prisons as well as the spread of radical Islam to other inmates.

As of now, little progress has been made on the closing of Guantanamo. Congress appears to be divided, even among its own factions. I tend to agree with Sen. Durbin and propose that we close Guantanamo. We give the detainee’s their day in court and either send them back to their country of origin if that country is willing to accept them, or we place them in supermax prisons within the United States. Mr. Gaffney’s concerns are ludicrous. We hold hundreds of terrorists in supermax facilities – to my knowledge, there have been no attacks or major issues stemming from the domestic detention of detainees. In fact, a detainee in the general population of a prison will probably have more to fear from us than we will of him. Furthermore, should we allow the detainees to return to their country of origin and something goes wrong – another Abu Ghraib-type escape or a detainee returning to a terrorist cell – just look at what happened to Saeed al-Shiri. While I am not proposing or endorsing the use of drones, I am pointing out that the Obama administration clearly has no problem finding more permanent solutions when it deems necessary. On top of that, the study Sen. Cruz referred to only took into account the number of detainees associated with militant groups, not the number who have actually engaged in violent activities themselves. If I were to guess, the majority of detainees that we saw fit for release were more concerned with starting families and their lives than plotting more attacks.

So what comes next? Most likely nothing. The Pentagon finally announced that they will be establishing Periodic Review Boards – two years after the Obama administration called for their creation (no official dates as of yet). Force feeding and genital searches are still a go. Another day, another story. Maybe next time there is a senate hearing, the Obama administration will actually show up.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Force-Feeding Condemned by Top Congressmen

As the controversy surrounding force-feeding tactics at Guantanamo Bay continues, two top members of the U.S. Senate have spoken out in favor of ending the practice.  Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein called on President Obama to stop force-feeding prisoners partaking in hunger strikes in protest of their status at Guantanamo.  This comes just days after a U.S. District Court Judge handed down a ruling stating that federal courts have no authority to shut down the force-feeding program, but agreeing with detainees and their attorneys that the practice is troubling and may violate human rights.  The decision put the burden solely on President Obama to address the situation, and it looks like he will be receiving pressure from Congress as well.

Senators Durbin and Feinstein did imply that there may be cases where force-feeding is medically necessary, but stated that the military does not observe proper guidelines and safeguards even in those cases.  This was not Senator Feinstein’s first attempt at convincing the government to stop force-feeding.  Last month she wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel after a visit to Guantanamo in which she called hunger strikes a “long-known form of non-violent protest aimed at bringing attention to a cause, rather than an attempt of suicide.”  This seems to imply that Feinstein’s views are in line with others who believe that force-feeding is inhumane in instances where protests do not threaten Guantanamo personnel and involve mentally competent detainees.

The White House turned to its usual response, stating that it does not want any detainees to die of malnutrition while in detention.  So it’s ok to hold them indefinitely with no hope of release even though we lack the necessary evidence to press charges, but it’s not ok for them to protest a largely unreasonable policy in a manner that poses no threat to the United States or its military personnel.  Got it.

The Senators also called on President Obama to make good on his long overdue promise to close Guantanamo Bay altogether, which was just another drop in the proverbial ocean of similar requests made since Obama took office.  As sad as it is, it’s almost laughable at this point to think that another request to close Guantanamo will make a difference with so many members of Congress still in favor of keeping it open.  But I guess it’s nice to know that there are still politicians out there who believe that it can be accomplished.

Do I think this latest effort to stop force-feeding and close Guantanamo will make any difference?  Not really.  Like I’ve said before, closing Guantanamo will be a long, painful process and there are still too many people who want to keep it open.  It’s not a groundbreaking prediction but I don’t think Guantanamo Bay will be closed any time in the near future.  I think our short-term goal needs to be putting an end to force-feeding.  If you believe Monday’s decision, we should be able to sidestep much of the political process and leave it up to President Obama if we focus on that.  That doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to close the base, but we need to focus on the immediate problems that we can fix right now.

In a related story, two hunger-strikers dropped out of the over 4 month-long protest for unspecified reasons, bringing the total number down to 104.  However, 45 are still being force-fed on a daily basis.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

This Message is UNCLASSIFIED: FISA Explained

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was created by Congress in
1978 to review applications for warrants related to national security
investigations.  According to the Federal Judicial Center website, initially the court
was created in part as a response to allegations that the executive
branch was abusing its authority in conducting domestic electronic
surveillance in the interest of national security. (Sounds familiar,
doesn’t it?) Presumably the goals of the court have been to preserve
an air of fairness in relation to what are otherwise sensitive issues of
national security dominated by the executive branch.

But, it’s fairly disconcerting to have a court creating a body of law
that is essentially kept a secret from the public. So in February,
Senator Diane Feinstein sent a letter to presiding judge of FISA,
requesting that “important rulings of law” be declassified by FISA
to inform the public about FISA.

In 2010, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the
Department of Justice established a process to declassify opinions that
are “assessed to contain a significant interpretation of law,” but the
policy never really took hold. The court’s presiding judge Reggie
Walton, wrote in response to Feinstein’s letter that, “While
classification determinations are made by the Executive Branch in the
first instance, the facts presented in applications to [FISA] always
or almost always involve classified intelligence activities, the
disclosure of which could be harmful to the nation’s security.”

So it seems that while FISA was originally formed as a response to
the Executive branch’s abuse of authority, it really just serves as a
mechanism by which that same branch can maintain an authoritative
stranglehold on national security practices through the language of
“classification.” As a result, the power of FISA is as great as the
executive branch’s power to classify, which is always growing.

Perhaps there are highly sensitive issues that FISA is protecting,
but a judicial policy to protect information “classified” by the
government is especially problematic when the government is known to
over-classify. The real question is, are the the “classified intelligence activities” that
Reggie Walton claims FISA’s secrecy protects truly of a sensitive
and detrimental nature to our nation’s security, or just more instances of the
government classifying information to protect itself from public scrutiny?

Alison Frimmel, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Snowden circumvented legitimate whistleblower route

Over the last couple of weeks, the a lot has been said on both sides of the argument about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and the balance of national security and privacy. His disclosures have raised a moderate amount of outrage on the part of libertarians of both parties, as well as a great deal of discussion on the proper balance of national security needs and privacy rights.

Interestingly, most representatives in Congress does not seem that perturbed by the idea of these programs, although they are livid that they were disclosed in this manner. And of course the Executive has been outraged that one of its trusted contractors has turned on them. And now, Snowden has been charged with espionage, however poorly that statute may fit the offense.

Something that is lost in all of this debate on whether the surveillance programs in question are legal, ethical, wise, etc. is the question of who should be asking these questions and how. We have a Whistleblower Protection Act for a reason, after all. It reiterates and reinforces the idea that national security policy questions are to be dealt with by our cadre of national security professionals and by Congress.

Snowden claims that he leaked the information in order to allow the American public to decide for itself if these programs were appropriate. But his own actions and methods belie this intent. By releasing the information into the public domain, instead of following the prescribed chain of notification and complaint, Snowden decided himself that the programs were a violation of the public’s privacy rights. So instead of having the decision on the careful balance between national security nd privacy made by our elected representatives, Snowden ensured that it was made by an unaccountable high school dropout.

I do not bring up this last point out of spite, or to merely disparage Snowden; I, too, never completed high school.  However, there is a reason for the overwhelming preference for college graduates with a broad liberal arts background. Such an education promotes better contextual understanding of the fine balances between the different competing factors confronted in any given situation. This is precisely the skill that the central question in this affair requires: whether the value to national security of these programs is worth the loss of a given amount of privacy. Interestingly enough, this is also exactly the type of decision made on a daily basis by our elected representatives in Congress, who (not incidentally) should have been the Snowden’s last stop before going public.

I know understand how powerful the personal belief that a certain national security program or event is unethical and must be exposed can be. I have been personally involved in a whistleblower case, and seen with my own eyes the emotional strain that can be caused by holding back the information that you vehemently believe should be made public. But that does not excuse those like Snowden or Bradley Manning, who have simply bypassed all of the proper channels and taken the decision entirely into their own hands.

If Snowden was a true patriot, he would not broadcast his information from safe havens abroad, on the run from the law (although he claims he is “not here to hide”—again, his actions belie his claimed intent). He would instead do what respectable whistleblowers do: First go through the correct channels, and when that fails and resort to the open media is required, stand up and face the music. Such whistleblowers often go unprosecuted, and when they are, they can at least rely on a jury of their fellow citizens to come to the rescue.

Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research