As one of the 1,200-plus signatories to the full-page ad that appeared in The New York Times, calling for the closure of Guantanamo, I was disappointed in President Barack Obama's speech Thursday on counterterrorism, drones and Guantanamo.
Torture and Indefinite Detention at Guantanamo
In a carefully crafted - at times defensive, discourse, Obama said, "In some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values - by using torture to interrogate our enemies and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law," adding, "We unequivocally banned torture." But Obama failed to note that the United Nations Human Rights Commission determined in 2006 that the violent force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo amounted to torture and that he has continued that policy. More than half the remaining detainees are refusing food to protest their treatment and indefinite detention, many having been held for more than a decade with no criminal charges. In only a brief, but telling, mention of his administration's violent force-feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, Obama asked, "Is that who we are? Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that."
One would hope that Obama's sense of justice would prevent him from allowing the tortuous force-feeding of people like Nabil Nadjarab, who has said, "To be force-fed is unnatural, and it feels like my body is not real. They put you on a chair - it reminds me of an execution chair. Your legs, arms and shoulders are tied with belts. If you refuse to let them put the tube in, they force your head back . . . [it is very risky] because if the tube goes in the wrong way, the liquid might get into your lungs. I know some who have developed infections in the nose. They now have to keep tubes in their noses permanently." British resident Shaker Aamer reported being subjected to sleep deprivation and being dragged around like an animal at Guantanamo. David Remes, who represents two detainees, reported "shocking" genital searches "designed to deter" detainees from meeting with their lawyers. The "new military policy," said Remes, "is to sexually abuse them in searches."
And Obama asks, "Is that who we are?"
Obama did not say he would close Guantanamo. He criticized Congress for placing restrictions on transferring detainees who have been cleared for release, although he signed the legislation Congress passed. To his credit, Obama lifted the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen and appointed a new senior envoy at the State Department and Department of Defense to oversee detainee transfers to third countries. But Obama did not pledge to use the waiver provision contained in Section 1028(d) of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the Secretary of Defense to authorize transfers when it is in the national security interest of the United States. Nor did he promise to stop blocking the release of detainees cleared by habeas corpus proceedings.
The Non-War Terror War
Obama explained how he plans to continue his war on terror without calling it a war on terror. He stated, "Under domestic law and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban and their associated forces."
While also saying, "Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America," Obama listed Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Mali as places the United States is involved in fighting terror. Because, he said, "we are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first," Obama concluded, "This is a just war - a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense."
Obama understands that not all wars are just wars. He was referring to, but misapplied, three principles of international law that govern the use of military force. Proportionality means that an attack cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. Yet when drones are used to take out convoys, large numbers of civilians will be, and have been, killed. Last resort means that a country may resort to war only if it has exhausted all peaceful alternatives to resolving the conflict. By assassinating rather than capturing suspected terrorists and bringing them to trial, Obama has not used military force as a last resort. And self-defense is defined by the leading Caroline Case of 1837, which said that the "necessity for self-defense must be instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation." The Obama administration has provided no evidence that the people it targeted were about to launch an imminent attack on the United States.
New Rules for Drone Strikes?
Although he defended the use of drones and targeted killing, Obama proclaimed, "America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists - our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them." Yet, 4,700 people have been killed by drone strikes, only two percent of whom were high-level terrorist suspects. And Obama has added only one person to the detention rolls at Guantanamo since he took office. "This [Obama] government has decided that instead of detaining members of al-Qaida [at Guatanamo] they are going to kill him," according to John Bellinger, who formulated the Bush administration drone policy.