Since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. presidents have claimed broad new powers in the name of fighting terrorism. Although some of these moves both threaten fundamental freedoms and weaken U.S. national security, Congress has provided little oversight or pushback. When it comes to checking and balancing the executive branch, too few in the House and Senate have done their jobs.
But now Colorado Sen. Mark Udall is helping to fill the leadership vacuum. In recent months, he’s emerged as a champion of an effective, common-sense approach to fighting terrorism, one that treats American ideals as assets, not hindrances.
In 2011 and 2012, Congress passed and President Obama signed defense bills that authorize indefinite detention for terrorism suspects, including Americans. The government can apprehend people on U.S. soil and lock them up for as long as it chooses without giving them a trial.
These bills also expand the role of the military in domestic counterterrorism, sidelining the FBI and local law enforcement. This is a non-solution to a nonproblem: civilian authorities have done an exceptional job of handling terrorism cases. Since 9/11, the government has used the U.S. court system to win convictions in more than four hundred terrorism cases. Meanwhile at Gitmo, legally suspect military commissions have produced a pathetic seven convictions.
Sen. Udall has proposed fixes that would forbid the government from indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects picked up in the United States and keep the military out of domestic counterterrorism. An op-ed he wrote with Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) explains: “Inviting our armed forces into our cities and towns with the power to indefinitely detain Americans without trial is a misguided attempt that erodes our rights to due process and limits the effectiveness of civilian law enforcement.”
In battling terrorism, President Obama has relied on combat drones — the primary weapon in the U.S. “targeted killing” program. The U.S government has used drones to kill thousands, including many civilians. Yet the Obama administration has provided scant details about the program. Without more information, Americans cannot be confident that their government is killing in accordance with the law.
Sen. Udall joined with a handful of other Senators to demand access to memos outlining the legal case for the targeted killing of Americans overseas, which the administration eventually provided. Udall says he wants to understand the administration’s legal case before deciding whether to vote to confirm John Brennan, nominated to head the CIA. “The American people have the right to know what the government does on their behalf,” Udall said at Brennan’s confirmation hearing.
Perhaps the worst mistake the U.S. government made in the struggle against terrorism was the decision to torture. The “enhanced interrogation” program violated long-standing taboos and laws against torture, undermined U.S. credibility, and fueled anti-American hatred and violence. Also, the program of official cruelty spawned a culture of unofficial cruelty, giving license to brutality beyond even what the CIA had prescribed. A number of people in U.S custody were tortured to death.
To President Obama’s great credit, he signed an executive order banning torture. Yet the program’s dark legacy lives on, as does the possibility of its return. That’s why the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s post-9
11 detention and interrogation is so important. This classified 6,000-page report is the most comprehensive record of the U.S. torture program to date, and by making it public, the U.S. government would enable citizens to assess the true costs of the turn to the “dark side”.
Sen. Udall, a member of the Intelligence Committee, has been a leading proponent of declassifying the report. Even if the committee votes to declassify, the CIA could effectively block release, so Sen. Udall pressed Brennan at his confirmation hearing, pointing out that the names of the detainees and the torture techniques are already public. “So long as the report does not identify any undercover officers or perhaps the names of certain countries,” he said, “can you think of any reason why the report couldn’t be declassified with the appropriate number of redactions?”
Brennan couldn’t. Still, he didn’t come out in support of declassification at the hearing — a reminder that putting in place a counterterrorism strategy that squares with American ideals will be a challenge. And it will be impossible without leadership from Congress. Thank you, Sen. Udall, for providing it.
Lieutenant General Harry E. Soyster, USA (Retired) served as Director, Defense Intelligence Agency during DESERT SHIELD/STORM. He also served as Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army, Commanding General, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command and in the Joint Reconnaissance Center, Joint Chiefs of Staff.