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

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

SJC to Hold Hearing on Guantanamo

At 2:00PM today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing entitled “Closing Guantanamo: The National Security, Fiscal, and Human Rights implications.”  Speaking at the hearing will be several current and retired high-ranking members of the military, two members of the House of Representatives, and Elisa Massimino, the president of and CEO of Human Rights First.

In addition to pushing for closure of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, the speakers are expected to outline a plan for transferring current detainees to other locations for continued detention, and also the release of 86 prisoners that have been cleared for release.  The ongoing hunger strikes are bound to come up as well.  There are currently 69 detainees participating in the hunger strikes, a significant drop the 106 participants earlier this month.  However, the numbers may rise again one Ramadan has ended and there are still 45 detainees being force-fed.

We’ll be covering this in detail over the next few days, but you can check it out via webcast here if you’re interested.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Center for Policy and Research Featured in “The New Yorker”

Yesterday, The New Yorker ran an article featuring the research of Seton Hall Law professors Jonathan Hafetz and Mark Denbeaux and the Center for Policy and Research Fellows.  The article, “The Dark Ages: A Critic at Large,” details the origins of the War on Terror and analyzes how due process and other legal matters have changed over time. The article draws on two books written by Professor Hafetz, “Habeas Corpus After 9/11:  Confronting America’s New Global Detention System,” and “The Guantanamo Lawyers:  Inside a Prison, Outside the Law,” which was co-edited by Professor Denbeaux.

The article brings to light the brutal tactics used by the DOD in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo and other military installations throughout the world.  It also points out that the Bush administration was not held accountable for these alleged human rights abuses, instead choosing to create rules and procedures ad hoc to work around existing international and domestic laws.  In addition to citing Professor Hafetz and Professor Denbeaux’s work, the article references the Center for Policy & Research’s flagship “Report on Guantanamo Detainees: A Profile of 517 Detainees through Analysis of Department of Defense Data,” noting that only five per cent of Guantanamo detainees had been arrested by U.S. forces.  Pakistani and Northern Alliance forces had captured forty-seven per cent based on bounties issued by the U.S. military.

In addition to this reference, the Guantanamo Reports have been introduced into the Congressional record by the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and as part of a Resolution by the European Parliament.  While the Center for Policy and Research is still working to uncover information regarding Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of detainees, work done by its students and faculty continues to affect public opinion and policy change.

Christopher Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

Former DOD Lawyer Frowns on Drone Court

Last week Jeh Johnson, the general council for the Department of Defense during President Obama’s first term, warned at a conference at Fordham Law School that the President’s targeted killing policies breeds mistrust among the public:

“The problem is that the American public is suspicious of executive power shrouded in secrecy. In the absence of an official picture of what our government is doing, and by what authority, many in the public fill the void by imagining the worst.”

However, he was skeptical about recent calls for a “drone court” to review and approve or deny targeted killing decisions:

“To be sure, a national security court composed of a bipartisan group of federal judges with life tenure, to approve targeted lethal force, would bring some added levels of credibility, independence and rigor to the process, and those are worthy goals.”

“But, we must be realistic about the degree of added credibility such a court can provide. Its proceedings would necessarily be ex parte and in secret, and, like a FISA court, I suspect almost all of the government”s applications would be granted, because, like a FISA application, the government would be sure to present a compelling case. … [While] the New York Times editorial page promotes a FISA-like court for targeted lethal force, it derides the FISA court as a ‘rubber stamp’ because it almost never rejects an application. How long before a ‘drone court’ operating in secret is criticized in the same way?”

Apparently not long, since I have already raised this criticism in a previous post. However, I coupled this criticism with a proposed solution: using ex post review, rather than ex ante. By removing from the judge’s consideration the concern for the pressing national security need involved in deciding whether a proposed target is an imminent threat, ex post review would allow the judge to be more critical of the Administration’s case, and make the court less likely to become another “rubber stamp.”

Mr. Johnson raised other several issues with the concept of a national security court for targeted killing decisions, as well. Interestingly, all of these concerns would be eliminated or greatly mitigated by removing the assumption that the court would authorize the killings, rather than ratify them afterward.

First, Johnson notes, as others have, that judges would be loath to issue the equivalent of death warrants, first of all on purely moral grounds, but also on more political grounds. Courts enjoy the highest approval ratings of the three branches of government, yet accepting the responsibility to determine which individuals may live or die, without that individual having an opportunity to appear before the court would simply shift some of the public opprobrium from the Executive to the Judiciary. However, if the court exercised ex post review, it instead would be in its ordinary position of approving or disapproving the Executive’s decisions, not making its decisions for it.

Another concern raised by Johnson is that the judges would be highly uncomfortable making such decisions because they would be necessarily involve a secret, purely ex parte process. While courts do this on a daily basis, as when they issue search or arrest warrants, the targeted killing context stands apart in that the judge’s decision would be effectively irreversible. Here again, the use of ex post process would free the courts from this problem, and place it in the executive (which includes the military, incidentally, an organization which deals with this issue as a matter of course).

Johnson also notes that even the determination of the facts is fraught with problems. The first three of Holder’s criteria for the legality of a targeted killing operation, feasibility of capture, imminence of threat, and senior leadership in an enemy organization, are time-sensitive determinations. Feasibility, Johnson notes from personal experience, can change several times in one night. That imminence may change over time is obvious to anyone with a dictionary. And while a target’s position as a senior leader in al-Qaeda is unlikely to change very often, it does on occasion (take the case of Mokhtar Belmokhtar). Requiring a court to determine these facts in advance would also require that the executive would have to notify the court when any change has occurred that might effect that determination. Meanwhile, use of ex post review would allow the court to look at a single point in time, when the executive “pulled the trigger” on the operation, thus crystallizing the facts and obviating this problem.

The last of the Holder criteria, too, causes problems. This criterion requires that the operation be executed in compliance with the law of war. Of course, this is capable of determination only after the fact. Thus, no ex ante review will be able to determine if this requirement is satisfied. An ex post review, however, could.

Johnson also raised a very significant separation of powers concern. While the President’s duties and powers are not well enumerated in the Constitution, one thing is made clear: the President is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. According to Johnson, the President therefore cannot abdicate his responsibilities as Commander in Chief to another branch of the government, nor can Congress remove those powers to itself or the Judiciary. While this is not an entirely settled question of law (note the War Powers Act and Congress’ power of the purse strings), it can be easily avoided by conducting the review ex post. After all, ex post review of the execution of nearly any of the President’s powers is fully within the authorities of the Judicial Branch.

Johnson also notes that any requirement for ex ante review of a national security issue will require an exception for exigent circumstances. Johnson asks, “is it therefore worth it?” Without coming to a conclusion on this question, ex post review would obviate the concern. No exigent circumstances can occur after the the deed is done.

Lastly, there is the concern of creating perverse incentives: whether a person’s name or identity is known has never been a factor in determining the legality of targeting an otherwise-lawful military target. But by creating a separate legal regime for known targets, we could create a disincentive to collect information about a target. We do not want a military or intelligence agency that keeps itself intentionally uninformed. Nor do we want to halt a military operation in progress simply because one of the targets is recognized late. Conducting the review ex post would not eliminate these issues, but it would substantially mitigate them. The military (or CIA, if it keeps its program), would not fear an interruption of its operations, and could even have an incentive to collect more information in order to later please a court that has plenty of time to look back at the past operations and question whether an individual was in fact targeted.

Not mentioned in Mr. Johnson’s comments, but related to his concern regarding perverse incentives, is another concern. The Executive, or some agency within it, may attempt to evade the jurisdiction of the court by claiming that it did not “specifically target” the individual, but was targeting under general constitutional authorities “someone” that appeared to be an imminent threat to the US–and now the case is moot. No court could enforce its jurisdiction before it knows that the individual is targeted, but it can enforce its jurisdiction after the targeting is brought to completion. In an ex post review, if the claim is made that the killing was not “targeted,” and thus that no review is necessary, the court will be able to employ its power to determine its own jurisdiction to enquire into the process leading to the killing, which in this type of review would be half the job.

Thus, for each of Mr. Johnson’s concerns about the wisdom or legality  of a “national security court” to review targeted killing decisions, it is the reliance on ex ante review that causes all or most of the problem. However, ex-post review will give the public the assurance that it seeks that the Executive is not abusing and will not abuse its vast military might, while still providing it the room to carry out its responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is not something that many people seem to devote much attention to.

(The full text of Mr. Johnson’s address is here.)

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy & Research

DOJ Targeted Killing White Paper

On Monday, NBC obtained an unsigned Justice Department white paper outlining the Obama administration’s legal position on circumstances under which the United States could lawfully kill a U.S. citizen in a counter-terror operation.  Unfortunately, the 16-page document is not the full OLC memo that has been requested by several members of Congress, but an abbreviated version of it that was provided last summer to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees.

The white paper expressly limits its scope to those citizens who are a senior al-Qaeda member or an “associated force” in a foreign country, outside an area of active hostilities. In brief, it asserts it would be legal to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen in such cases if three conditions are met:

1) an informed, high-level government official has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat to the U.S.;

2) capture is infeasible; and

3) the operation complied with applicable laws of war.

The while this white paper is as yet the most detailed public account of the Obama administration’s legal justification for the targeted killing of Americans, it is unfortunately short on details of the decision-making process. As pointed out by Steve Vladeck at Lawfare, most Americans understand that there may be occasions in which U.S. citizens who engage in terrorist activities must be targeted in the same way that foreign terrorists are. What matters is the process for coming to that decision. We have due process protections because we are concerned no only about government overreach, but also to adequately protect us from erroneous determinations and unnecessary reliance on force. This helps ensure that, for example, they really are an active member of al Qaeda, that they cannot they be arrested, and that we cannot simply wait until capture is feasible.

The criteria listed above clearly attempt to ensure that these issues are addressed, but this is not nearly enough. A constitutional lawyer like President Obama should not need reminding that unchecked executive power is very dangerous to liberty. And there is nothing in this white paper to suggest that any outside check or review has been placed on the Executive’s ability to conduct these lethal operations against its own citizens.

In fact, it suggests that judicial review is inappropriate. Its reasoning for this is that it would require ex ante review of targeting decisions, which are inherently predictive and not amenable to judicial determination. This would be quite astute, were it true. However, most critics who have called for judicial involvement in targeted killing decisions, myself included, have clearly stipulated that the courts review the governments actions ex post, and at least partly ex parte.

Additionally, as Steve points out, the white paper’s suggestion that targeted killing decisions are non-justiciable political questions is absurd. These determinations are in many ways no different than those made in law enforcement situations, as when a sniper shoots a hostage-taker. Such cases are often reviewed (ex post) by the courts. Even in those ways in which they are different, the courts have already been involved, as with the spate of recent habeas litigation.

It is because of these issues that the white paper does nothing to satisfy the concerns over executive power. Many have claimed that this document displays the Obama administration’s backslid into something resembling the “Bush Doctrine.” But rather than the nitpicking over the legal conclusions of the white paper as many analysts have (Mary Ellen O’Connell is still ranting about “zones” of conflict—see my analysis), it is this refusal to allow any review of the decision-making process that raises the most severe concerns over President Obama’s targeted killing program.

Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow

Center for Policy & Research