Analysis Foreign Policy

white paper hardly the first core-shaker of the American psyche

After some serious delays and multiple requests, President Obama finally indicated last Wednesday that he would allow two Congressional committees to see copies of a certain secret memo. What they actually got was a white paper from the Office of Legal Counsel (the part of the Department of Justice which exists to advise the President about the legality of proposed policy) which detailed the Administration’s understanding of when and how it can legally assassinate suspected American terrorists abroad. The straw that broke the camel seems to have been the recent furor over John Brennan’s confirmation hearing to become CIA director, as he is widely understood to be the staunchest advocate of our secret drone war.

Recall that pressure to understand the Administration’s so-called targeted killing power intensified after Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, was struck down by a drone without charge or trial in Yemen in 2011, far from any battlefield. It remains to be seen whether all the asked-for memos regarding targeted killings with drones have been released, but the white paper, recently leaked to the public, is bad enough. (Remember to consider my forthcoming analysis of it if you have any doubt.) Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat from Oakland, wrote this to the Los Angeles Times in response to the news [emphasis mine]:

The recently leaked Justice Department memo that outlined the overly broad and vague legal boundaries used to justify drone strikes should shake the American people to the core.

While I applaud President Obama for releasing more information to the Senate and House intelligence committees, the root of the problem remains: The administration is using the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by the House on Sept. 14, 2001, as one of the justifications for the lethal use of drones. As the only member of Congress who voted against this blank check, I believe now more than ever that we must repeal it.

We need a full debate of the consequences of the September 2001 action, and meaningful oversight by Congress is vital. As commander in chief, it is Obama’s duty to keep our country safe, but Congress must not retreat from its constitutional obligation of oversight. These checks and balances are the foundation of our democracy, and they must stay intact.

The Representative is absolutely right that the legal justification for the drone war as outlined in the white paper should “shake the American people to the core.” But this development is hardly the first since 14 September 2001 that should have had that effect.

Almost immediately after the attack, suspected terrorists began being kidnapped and sent to secret prisons in a scheme known as extraordinary rendition. According to a report from the Open Society Foundations, more than 50 nation states were involved in rendering at least 136 people, often with scant evidence. As documented here, these detainees were rarely if ever charged and only a few have gotten trials to date. Many of them have been released due to a lack of evidence, others have been cleared for release but still languish in prison, and at least nine have died in captivity.

These suspects haven’t only been detained. They’ve been tortured in (what some argue is not) a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was waterboarded 183 times in a single month in 2003, despite the CIA lying to media about supposedly breaking him after only two minutes. Other techniques, like sleep deprivation, physical humiliation, and stress positions are well-documented. Hopefully the reader doesn’t need to be reminded of the systematic abuse committed on prisoners at Abu Ghraib, for which only the low-level soldiers fool enough to photograph themselves carrying out orders from their superiors were ever punished. But just in case, recall this image, which speaks for itself:

Information regarding Weapons of Mass Destructon illegally extracted from a prisoner — Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, extraordinarily rendered to and tortured in Egypt — was held up by Colin Powell to justify the invasion of Iraq ten years ago. Of course, as we’ve learned, virtually all the evidence to support Saddam Hussein’s possession of WMDs was distorted or outright fabricated, and no such weapons were ever found. But more than $800 billion dollars, more than 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded US service members, and untold tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties later, the region remains unstable.

Back at home, the Administration started wiretapping telecommunications from its own citizens without warrants to attempt to identify potential threats. The telecoms themselves were complicit in this wiretapping; the most extreme example was AT&T, which installed a fiberoptic splitter on its main line in San Francisco that sent copies to the NSA of all web traffic that company handled. This was arguably in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, but was in clear in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed after Nixon secretly spied on domestic political activists. The New York Times learned about this in 2004, but under pressure from the White House agreed not to spill until well after that year’s election. As the scandal unfolded in the following years, there was pressure to pass an ex post facto law to retroactively immunize the telecoms from their criminal complicity with the Bush administration. Barack Obama, then-Senator from Illinois, promised to support a filibuster of any such bill as he was trying to win the Democratic primary for the presidential race. Once his nomination was all but locked up, not only did the Senator fail to support a filibuster: he voted to pass the bill. Last December, President Obama signed into law a renewal to the FISA extension for five more years.

Some people haven’t been overly fond of the Terrorism War. One such man, PFC Bradley Manning, is alleged to have leaked thousands of documents that had been at his disposal which, despite punditry attempting to claim there was no news in them, detailed everything from frustrated diplomatic disdain to criminality of the highest order. For this, he has been subjected to clearly illegal pretrial detention since mid-2010. The administration has tried to melodramatically claim that the leaks have put lives at risk, but even then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates couldn’t abide that rhetoric.

As a footnote, don’t forget we still have to deal with the TSA.

So, hours before what will surely be soaring and hard-hitting rhetoric from the Orator-in-Chief in his State of the Union address, we’re faced with the uncomfortable reality that Obama has presided over a continuation of the sort of national security executive overreach he campaigned on ending. Should this white paper, the latest such development in absurdity and shame, “shake [us] to the core”? Absolutely. Is it anything new?

Well, something might be. Representative Lee has the moral authority to call for a repeal of the AUMF, which she rightly notes is a cornerstone of the white paper’s flawed argument, having been literally the only dissenting voice during its passage nearly 12 years ago. This could be a turning point in what will otherwise be Endless War. Bin Laden is dead. There hasn’t been a serious terrorist attack in more than a decade. Troops have largely withdrawn from the battlefields that AUMF has helped to create. It is time to repeal that law, hastily passed just three days after an attack that traumatized a nation of 300 million more than a decade ago. It is time to have a serious debate about the role and the efficacy of the military in stemming the terrorist threat. It is time for Congressional oversight to ensure the appropriate checks over the Executive, mandated by the Constitution, are in place. Please, call or write your congressmen today to add your voice to Representative Lee’s call for a repeal to the AUMF and increased Congressional police of the Executive’s decade of overreach.

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