Facts and Myths about Obama's Preventive Detention Proposal
By Glenn Greenwald
May 22, 2009 "Salon.com" -- In the wake of Obama's speech yesterday, there are vast numbers of new converts who now support indefinite "preventive detention." It thus seems constructive to have as dispassionate and fact-based discussion as possible of the implications of "preventive detention" and Obama's related detention proposals (military commissions).
(1) What does "preventive detention" allow?
It's important to be clear about what "preventive detention" authorizes. It does not merely allow the U.S. Government to imprison people alleged to have committed Terrorist acts yet who are unable to be convicted in a civilian court proceeding. That class is merely a subset, perhaps a small subset, of who the Government can detain. Far more significant, "preventive detention" allows indefinite imprisonment not based on proven crimes or past violations of law, but of those deemed generally "dangerous" by the Government for various reasons (such as, as Obama put it yesterday, they "expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden" or "otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans"). That's what "preventive" means: imprisoning people because the Government claims they are likely to engage in violent acts in the future because they are alleged to be "combatants."
Once known, the details of the proposal could -- and likely will -- make this even more extreme by extending the "preventive detention" power beyond a handful of Guantanamo detainees to anyone, anywhere in the world, alleged to be a "combatant." After all, once you accept the rationale on which this proposal is based -- namely, that the U.S. Government must, in order to keep us safe, preventively detain "dangerous" people even when they can't prove they violated any laws -- there's no coherent reason whatsoever to limit that power to people already at Guantanamo, as opposed to indefinitely imprisoning with no trials all allegedly "dangerous" combatants, whether located in Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Western countries and even the U.S.
During the Bush years, it was common for Democrats to try to convince conservatives to oppose Bush's executive power expansions by asking them: "Do you really want these powers to be exercised by Hillary Clinton or some liberal President?"
Following that logic, for any Democrat/progressive/liberal/Obama supporter who wants to defend Obama's proposal of "preventive detention," shouldn't you first ask yourself three simple questions:
(3) Questions for defenders of Obama's proposal:
There are many claims being made by defenders of Obama's proposals which seem quite contradictory and/or without any apparent basis, and I've been searching for a defender of those proposals to address these questions:
Bush supporters have long claimed -- and many Obama supporters are now insisting as well -- that there are hard-core terrorists who cannot be convicted in our civilian courts. For anyone making that claim, what is the basis for believing that? In the Bush era, the Government has repeatedly been able to convict alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban members in civilian courts, including several (Ali al-Marri, Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh) who were tortured and others (Zacharais Moussaoui, Padilla) where evidence against them was obtained by extreme coercion. What convinced you to believe that genuine terrorists can't be convicted in our justice system?
For those asserting that there are dangerous people who have not yet been given any trial and who Obama can't possibly release, how do you know they are "dangerous" if they haven't been tried? Is the Government's accusation enough for you to assume it's true?
Above all: for those justifying Obama's use of military commissions by arguing that some terrorists can't be convicted in civilian courts because the evidence against them is "tainted" because it was obtained by Bush's torture, Obama himself claimed just yesterday that his military commissions also won't allow such evidence ("We will no longer permit the use of evidence -- as evidence statements that have been obtained using cruel, inhuman, or degrading interrogation methods"). How does our civilian court's refusal to consider evidence obtained by torture demonstrate the need for Obama's military commissions if, as Obama himself claims, Obama's military commissions also won't consider evidence obtained by torture?
Finally, don't virtually all progressives and Democrats argue that torture produces unreliable evidence? If it's really true (as Obama defenders claim) that the evidence we have against these detainees was obtained by torture and is therefore inadmissible in real courts, do you really think such unreliable evidence -- evidence we obtained by torture -- should be the basis for concluding that someone is so "dangerous" that they belong in prison indefinitely with no trial? If you don't trust evidence obtained by torture, why do you trust it to justify holding someone forever, with no trial, as "dangerous"?
(4) Do other countries have indefinite preventive detention?
Obama yesterday suggested that other countries have turned to "preventive detention" and that his proposal therefore isn't radical ("other countries have grappled with this question; now, so must we"). Is that true?
In June of last year, there was a tumultuous political debate in Britain that sheds ample light on this question. In the era of IRA bombings, the British Parliament passed a law allowing the Government to preventively detain terrorist suspects for 14 days -- and then either have to charge them or release them. In 2006, Prime Minister Tony Blair -- citing the London subway attacks and the need to "intervene early before a terrorist cell has the opportunity to achieve its goals" -- wanted to increase the prevention detention period to 90 days, but MPs from his own party and across the political spectrum overwhelmingly opposed this, and ultimately increased it only to 28 days.
In June of last year, Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought an expansion of this preventive detention authority to 42 days -- a mere two weeks more. Reacting to that extremely modest increase, a major political rebellion erupted, with large numbers of Brown's own Labour Party joining with Tories to vehemently oppose it as a major threat to liberty. Ultimately, Brown's 42-day scheme barely passed the House of Commons. As former Prime Minister John Major put it in opposing the expansion to 42 days:
By rather stark and extreme contrast, Obama is seeking preventive detention powers that are indefinite -- meaning without any end, potentially permanent. There's no time limit on the "preventive detention." Compare that power to the proposal that caused such a political storm in Britain and what these other governments are empowered to do. The suggestion that indefinite preventive detention without charges is some sort of common or traditional scheme is clearly false.
(5) Is this comparable to traditional POW detentions?
When Bush supporters used to justify Bush/Cheney detention policies by arguing that it's normal for "Prisoners of War" to be held without trials, that argument was deeply misleading. And it's no less misleading when made now by Obama supporters. That comparison is patently inappropriate for two reasons: (a) the circumstances of the apprehension, and (b) the fact that, by all accounts, this "war" will not be over for decades, if ever, which means -- unlike for traditional POWs, who are released once the war is over -- these prisoners are going to be in a cage not for a few years, but for decades, if not life.
Traditional "POWs" are ones picked up during an actual military battle, on a real battlefield, wearing a uniform, while engaged in fighting. The potential for error and abuse in deciding who was a "combatant" was thus minimal. By contrast, many of the people we accuse in the "war on terror" of being "combatants" aren't anywhere near a "battlefield," aren't part of any army, aren't wearing any uniforms, etc. Instead, many of them are picked up from their homes, at work, off the streets. In most cases, then, we thus have little more than the say-so of the U.S. Government that they are guilty, which is why actual judicial proceedings before imprisoning them is so much more vital than in the standard POW situation.
Anyone who doubts that should just look at how many Guantanamo detainees were accused of being "the worst of the worst" yet ended up being released because they did absolutely nothing wrong. Can anyone point to any traditional POW situation where so many people were falsely accused and where the risk of false accusations was so high? For obvious reasons, this is not and has never been a traditional POW detention scheme.
During the Bush era, that was a standard argument among Democrats, so why should that change now? Here is what Anne-Marie Slaughter -- now Obama's Director of Policy Planning for the State Department -- said about Bush's "POW" comparison on Fox News in, November 21, 2001:
As for duration, the U.S. government has repeatedly said that this "war" is so different from standard wars because it will last for decades, if not generations. Obama himself yesterday said that "unlike the Civil War or World War II, we can't count on a surrender ceremony to bring this journey to an end" and that we'll still be fighting this "war" "a year from now, five years from now, and -- in all probability -- 10 years from now." No rational person can compare POW detentions of a finite and usually short (2-5 years) duration to decades or life in a cage. That's why, yesterday, Law Professor Diane Marie Amann, in The New York Times, said this:
There are many things that can be said about indefinitely imprisoning people with no charges who were not captured on any battlefield, but the claim that this is some sort of standard or well-established practice in American history is patently false.
(6) Is it "due process" when the Government can guarantee it always wins?
If you really think about the argument Obama made yesterday -- when he described the five categories of detainees and the procedures to which each will be subjected -- it becomes manifest just how profound a violation of Western conceptions of justice this is. What Obama is saying is this: we'll give real trials only to those detainees we know in advance we will convict. For those we don't think we can convict in a real court, we'll get convictions in the military commissions I'm creating. For those we can't convict even in my military commissions, we'll just imprison them anyway with no charges ("preventively detain" them).
Giving trials to people only when you know for sure, in advance, that you'll get convictions is not due process. Those are called "show trials." In a healthy system of justice, the Government gives everyone it wants to imprison a trial and then imprisons only those whom it can convict. The process is constant (trials), and the outcome varies (convictions or acquittals).
Obama is saying the opposite: in his scheme, it is the outcome that is constant (everyone ends up imprisoned), while the process varies and is determined by the Government (trials for some; military commissions for others; indefinite detention for the rest). The Government picks and chooses which process you get in order to ensure that it always wins. A more warped "system of justice" is hard to imagine.
(7) Can we "be safe" by locking up all the Terrorists with no charges?
Obama stressed yesterday that the "preventive detention" system should be created only through an act of Congress with "a process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified." That's certainly better than what Bush did: namely, preventively detain people with no oversight and no Congressional authorization -- in violation of the law. But as we learned with the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the Protect America Act of 2007, the mere fact that Congress approves of a radical policy may mean that it is no longer lawless but it doesn't make it justified. As Professor Amann put it: "no amount of procedures can justify deprivations that, because of their very nature violate the Constitution’s core guarantee of liberty." Dan Froomkin said that no matter how many procedures are created, that's "a dangerously extreme policy proposal."
Regarding Obama's "process" justification -- and regarding Obama's primary argument that we need to preventively detain allegedly dangerous people in order to keep us safe -- Digby said it best:
As I said yesterday, there were some positive aspects to Obama's speech. His resolve to close Guantanamo in the face of all the fear-mongering, like his release of the OLC memos, is commendable. But the fact that a Democratic President who ran on a platform of restoring America's standing and returning to our core principles is now advocating the creation of a new system of indefinite preventive detention -- something that is now sure to become a standard view of Democratic politicians and hordes of Obama supporters -- is by far the most consequential event yet in the formation of Obama's civil liberties policies.
"The first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law" is how Obama's own White House Counsel described him. Technically speaking, that is a form of change, but probably not the type that many Obama voters expected.
UPDATE II: Ben Wizner of the ACLU's National Security Project is the lead lawyer in the Jeppesen case, which resulted in the recent rejection by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals of the Bush/Obama state secrets argument, and also co-wrote (along with the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer) a superb article in Salon in December making the case against preventive detention. I spoke with him this morning for roughly 20 minutes regarding the detention policies proposed by Obama in yesterday's speech. It can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below. A transcript will be posted shortly.
UPDATE III: Rachel Maddow was superb last night -- truly superb -- on the topic of Obama's preventive detention proposal:
UPDATE IV: The New Yorker's Amy Davidson compares Obama's detention proposal to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (as did Professor Amann, quoted above). Johns Hopkins Professor Hilary Bok (aka Hilzoy) of The Washington Monthly writes: "If we don't have enough evidence to charge someone with a crime, we don't have enough evidence to hold them. Period" and "the power to detain people without filing criminal charges against them is a dictatorial power." Salon's Joan Walsh quotes the Center for Constitutional Rights' Vincent Warren as saying: "They’re creating, essentially, an American Gulag." The Philadelphia Inquirer's Will Bunch says of Obama's proposal: "What he's proposing is against one of this country's core principles" and "this is why people need to keep the pressure on Obama -- even those inclined to view his presidency favorably."