Is Obama Striking the Right
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The Post asked lawmakers, activists and others
whether the president is striking the right balance between national
security, civil liberties and government transparency. Below are
contributions from Carl Levin, Marc A. Thiessen, Kenneth Roth, Victoria
Toensing, Darrel J. Vandeveld, Ed Rogers, Michael Rubin, Elisa Massimino and
CARL LEVIN (D-Mich.)
Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
President Obama is right that the best way to keep
America safe is to embrace our fundamental values rather than skirt them.
The Bush administration abandoned some fundamental
tenets of our Constitution and of international law to fight terrorism. It
used excessive secrecy to shield ill-advised policies -- such as the
authorization of abusive interrogation techniques -- that would not survive
in the light of day. Abusive interrogations handed al-Qaeda a powerful
recruiting tool. That administration also instituted flawed legal processes
for detainees, which were reversed three times by the Supreme Court.
Obama's order to end abusive interrogations and
close Guantanamo Bay struck a blow against terrorist propaganda. His
proposal to bring the rules for military commissions in line with the
standards established by the Supreme Court continues the process of bringing
our fight back to the moral high ground.
We need allies to combat terrorism, and we have a
better chance of enlisting their support if we recognize the impact of
abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and make a clean break with those
MARC A. THIESSEN
Chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush;
visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution
Far from striking a balance, President Obama is
reeling on the national security front, issuing a confusing cacophony of
decisions. His speech Thursday was an effort to wrap a veneer of coherence
around a set of policies that are anything but.
Obama says he is for transparency. So over the
objections of five CIA directors, including his own, he released highly
classified memos describing the limits of our interrogation methods -- but
he refuses to release the classified documents that will show that the
program stopped attacks. On Thursday he declared: "As commander in chief, I
see the intelligence. . . . And I categorically reject the assertion that
these are the most effective means of interrogation." Let us see the
intelligence, Mr. President, so we can judge for ourselves.
Obama claimed that he had to release the memos to
comply with a court order. Yet he had no problem defying a court order when
he made the (correct) decision to withhold the release of photos from
investigations of detainee abuse. He reversed himself on his campaign pledge
to end the Bush military commissions, reinstating them with cosmetic changes
but giving his predecessor no credit for being right in the first place. To
the contrary, he declared this week that President Bush left him a mess.
What George Bush actually left Barack Obama is a country on the offensive
against the terrorists, and a set of tools that have kept America safe from
attack for seven years since Sept. 11. The mess we see is of Obama's making.
He is leaving Americans confused, the world perplexed and our nation more
vulnerable to attack.
Executive director, Human Rights Watch
President Obama has reaffirmed that violating human
rights undermines national security. He observed that Guantanamo has become
"a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause." Its
closure, as the president has ordered, should enhance America's safety.
Yet the essence of Guantanamo is not a particular
detention facility but, rather, its abusive methods. The president
contradicted himself by endorsing a new system for prolonged detention
without charge or trial. That would continue the essence of Guantanamo and
its national security costs. Allowing detention without trial also creates a
perilous loophole in our justice system. It enables the executive branch to
avoid demonstrating guilt in a criminal trial by simply classifying a
suspect as part of an enemy force.
That compromise of our basic rights is unnecessary
because regular federal courts have a long history of successfully
prosecuting terrorist crimes. If the government cannot convict someone of
conspiracy to commit terrorism -- which requires proof only of a criminal
agreement between two or more people and a single step to advance that plan
-- it should release the suspect, not lock him up anyway under a new and
dangerous detention regime.
Deputy assistant attorney general, 1984-88;
established the Justice Department's terrorism unit; chief counsel for the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 1981-84
What's new? To much applause, Obama announces he
has "banned the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques";
silently, he reserves the right to use them. Sounds like the Bush-Cheney
position, except they did not release classified documents to inform
terrorists what would or would not be done to them during interrogations.
The maligned military commissions are back, characterized now as having
increased evidentiary protections but in reality not creating any more than
were already available.
George W. Bush wanted to close Guantanamo, too, but
he did not know what to do with dangerous detainees who could not be put on
trial. For example, a federal court will suppress a confession made without
Miranda rights, a nicety not usually practiced on the battlefield. Obama
announces the closing of Guantanamo (again, applause), but concedes there
may be "people who cannot be prosecuted . . . because evidence may be
tainted," but they "nonetheless pose a threat to . . . the United States."
Without telling how, Obama promises not to "release individuals" who want to
kill Americans. Changing Zip codes from Cuba to a U.S. prison does not
resolve the issue: unending detention for detainees who cannot be tried in a
U.S. court or by military commission. The Bush-Cheney dilemma remains.
What's new? Unlike Bush-Cheney, Obama knows how to
put lipstick on a pig.
DARREL J. VANDEVELD
Lieutenant colonel (Army Reserve); resigned as a
prosecutor in the Office of Military Commissions in September
Military commissions have a long history in the
United States, not all of it commendable. (One wonders what Samuel Mudd, the
physician who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after Lincoln's
assassination and who received a life sentence from a military commission
for his Hippocratic efforts, might make of the Military Commissions Act of
2006; Mudd escaped capital punishment by one vote.)
Nonetheless, the Bush-Cheney administration left
President Obama with a limited number of alternatives, all of them bad, and
he has made rational decisions, devoid of hysteria or false emotion. The
worst aspects of the commissions appear to be on their way to correction. It
is impossible to criticize or condemn the president for acting decisively
and quickly to restore America's role -- always an aspiration, imperfectly
realized -- as an exemplar of transparency and fairness. As someone who has
risked his life on the battlefield in Iraq, I can only express support for
the commander in chief as he undertakes these enormously complex -- and
costly -- decisions.
White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W.
Bush; chairman of BGR Group
Obama's tone and apparent balance of national
security, civil liberties and government transparency are good and effective
with most audiences. Whether he is doing the right things substantively is
another matter. Releasing the interrogation memos made America weaker and
will continue to weaken us. Closing Guantanamo is the least worst option of
a situation he inherited (he reminds everyone of this often). But central
questions about Obama's national security philosophy remain unclear.
I have spent the past several days in Iraq and
Lebanon. In Iraq there is growing fear about the U.S. desire to leave
regardless of the consequences. In Lebanon, people wonder why Vice President
Biden is coming there just before the close, and crucial, June elections. No
one is sure whom the visit is supposed to help or what it is meant to
accomplish. And the big questions of America's intent and options regarding
Iran's nuclear ambitions remain unclear. The unreconciled attitude I have
observed in the region is that if Obama is weak, Iran will gain nuclear
weapons, and that would be a disaster; if he is strong, he might attack or
let Israel do so -- and that would be a disaster.
So his tone is good, but we are all waiting to see
where the real decisions will take us.
As for the Republican contribution to the
conversation, former vice president Dick Cheney has served his country and
his party with great distinction. He certainly has the right to speak;
whether it is wise to do so now and with such intensity is debatable. Where
is Brent Scowcroft when the GOP needs him?
Resident scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute; senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School
President Obama has both undermined national
security and eroded the foundation of human rights law.
Obama declares that "We are indeed at war with
al-Qaeda," but he argues that we must treat terrorist threats as police
matters. Citing the convictions of Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center
bomber, and Zacarias Moussaoui, the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, Obama says, "Our
courts andjuries . . . are tough enough to convict terrorists." Convictions,
however, require evidence available only after an attack. Safeguarding
national security means more than just picking up the pieces.
More misguided is Obama's extension of
constitutional rights to terrorists. The Geneva Conventions do not apply
fully to all prisoners. To qualify for maximum protection, combatants must
wear uniforms, carry arms openly and adhere to the laws of war. Terrorists
fail on all counts. To bestow rights regardless incentivizes future
noncompliance. If combatants face no penalty for using schoolchildren as
shields, then why not set up arms in a school yard?
Our constitutional principles must remain
sacrosanct, but to preserve them we must not misapply them.
CEO and executive director of Human Rights First
Asking whether President Obama has found the right
"balance" between national security and our constitutional values is the
wrong question. In his inaugural address and again in his speech Thursday,
Obama firmly rejected the premise -- which former vice president Cheney is
still hawking -- that we are locked in a zero-sum game where national
security can only be purchased by forfeiting our values and going to "the
Instead, Obama and the vast majority of seasoned
military and law enforcement professionals assert that upholding our values
is a source of strength and a key weapon in the war of ideals against a
terrorist enemy. "Balance" is the approach that brought us Guantanamo Bay,
Abu Ghraib and officially sanctioned torture. The specter of the United
States forfeiting its human rights principles in time of crisis has
reverberated around the world, giving comfort -- and cover -- to repressive
governments. The world craves leadership from the United States again. And
as Sen. John McCain said last week, "When you have a majority of Americans,
seventy-something percent, saying we shouldn't torture, then I'm not sure it
helps for the Vice President to go out and continue to espouse that
position." It also feeds the insurgency, prolongs the struggle and costs
Obama must resolve the mess left to him by the
previous administration. But the legacy of Guantanamo -- arbitrary detention
and a second-rate justice system -- must not be allowed to drive future
strategy. We can and must do better.
Executive director, Reporters' Committee on the
Freedom of the Press
When President Obama announced his transparency
initiatives on his first full day in office, several friends joked that the
Reporters Committee could shut down and bask in the glow of the newly
revitalized Freedom of Information Act.
We knew better.
We've seen some progress. The president is talking
about the public's right to know what its government is doing. And I was
giddy after the meeting with the transition team, from which we asked for
more transparency and got a warm smile instead of a stone-faced warning that
terrorists will use information to harm us.
But Obama's reversal of his decision to release
photographs of prisoners in Iraqi and Afghan prisons who have presumably
been abused by American forces was a huge disappointment. The photos we've
already seen, by the president's admission, are worse than the unreleased
photos and have been in circulation for months. As courts have noted,
terrorists don't need more photographs to inflame the masses against
Even under Obama, I'm afraid we may have the same
old problem when it comes to asking for information that might make some
politician or government official look bad.