Topic A -- Obama's Balance on National Security and Civil Liberties

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 Lucy Dalglish.


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 abuses.


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.


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 dark side."

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 American lives.

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 Americans.

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.

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