On May 23, President Obama gave a speech on counterterrorism in which he called for a winding down of the war that began in the wake of 9-11. To that end, he pledged to close the Guantanamo detention facility, clarify the legal standards that guide the targeted killing program, and work to repeal the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF).
This 12-year-old conflict has led to human rights abuses which have damaged the reputation of the United States and provided cover to repressive regimes, so it was encouraging to hear the President say he wants to end it. Yet a speech like this is only as significant as the action that follows it. “It will take more than words,” said Rear Admiral John Hutson, USN (ret.). “It’s going to take lots of hard work, and it’s going to take some courage.”
My organization, Human Rights First, presses the U.S. government to institute counterterrorism policies that respect human rights and the rule of law. Our longstanding partner in this effort is a coalition of retired military leaders who gathered last month in Washington, D.C. to meet with White House officials and members of Congress. Two of them also joined me for a public forum: Admiral Hutson and Major General Paul Eaton, USA (ret.), who said that the President’s speech, if “operationalized,” could “reverse a trend that’s been going on for a decades, an accelerating trend since 9-11: a concentration of power within the executive branch that is not consistent with the U.S. Constitution.”
Guided by moderator Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, we discussed what the President, with help from Congress, needed to do to move the country toward a postwar counterterrorism strategy. Of particular concern to the military leaders is the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The site of detainee abuse, indefinite detention, and unjust military commissions, Gitmo has done incalculable damage to the credibility of the United States. “If we’re going to back away from perpetual war, the Guantanamo issue is the poster child for where we’ve been for the last 12 years,” said General Eaton.
Members of the coalition of generals and admirals were standing behind the president—literally—when in 2009 he signed an executive order pledging to close Gitmo within one year. But it remains open both because of congressional opposition and because of the President’s unwillingness to spend political capital on this human rights problem.
Since the President’s speech—in which he announced that he would lift the self-imposed ban on transferring detainees to Yemen—progress has been minimal. On the upside, the President has named Clifford Sloan as the State Department special Gitmo envoy and designated Lisa Monaco, his chief counterterrorism advisor, to run point on this issue. The President, however, hasn’t recently sent any detainees home or to third countries despite the fact that he has the authority to do so, 86 detainees have been cleared for release, and 78 of those 86 are from countries that have asked for their citizens to be sent home. Nor has the President set up the long-promised review boards to assess the cases of the remaining detainees.
President Obama also should provide more information about the targeted killing program, so that Americans—and people around the world—can be confident that it rests on a solid legal foundation. Rights-respecting guidelines are crucial not just because they prevent abuses but because the United States is setting a precedent for other countries. “We need parameters on it,” said Admiral Hutson, displaying the plain-spokenness that has helped make him such an effective advocate, “because it could come back and bite us in the ass.”
Here, too, progress has been halting. The Obama administration has given members of Congress limited access to its legal rationale for targeting U.S. citizens, but the vast majority of the information about the program remains secret. During a recent hearing, Senators asked administration officials to provide a list of the groups and individuals the United States is permitted to kill under the 2001 AUMF. The officials couldn’t provide one. That’s right: twelve years into this war, we still don’t know exactly who the enemy is.
It’s difficult to envision the U.S. government moving toward a postwar counterterrorism strategy as long as the 2001 AUMF is operative. That’s why President Obama’s pledge to work with Congress to repeal it was important. Yet if this process has begun, the President and his advisors are keeping it secret. The President could lend his support to existing bills. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) has introduced a measure that would repeal the law after 180 days, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has introduced one that would sunset repeal at the end of 2014.
But repealing the AUMF—like the overall task of implementing a postwar counterterrorism strategy—would require a sustained and intensive effort from the President. Almost two months after his could-be landmark speech, it’s not clear that he’s willing to fight on this issue. But if he chose to, he would have an army of retired generals and admirals—along with many other Americans—fighting alongside him.