Recent reports about the Guantánamo Bay military prison have documented and confirmed the torture of detainees, and offered new insight into the wobbly legality of military commissions.
Scores of prisoners remain there and according to a Seton Hall report an elaborate system has been installed to eavesdrop on attorneys meeting with the prisoners, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the military tribunals. The Constitution Project also released an exhaustive report confirming what has been known for years – that torture of prisoners did occur at Guantánamo. Many of the prisoners are on hunger strikes, they see no escape from a place where they are being indefinitely held. “The situation is desperate now,” prisoner Samir Najl al Hasan Moqbel wrote in a recent column for The New York Times.
Today, President Obama, during a White House news briefing, said he still would like to see Gitmo shuttered. Obama promised to close the prison during his first term, but failed. Some reporting said the administration did not have much of a strategy in place for closing the prison.
Obama said, “I continue to believe that we need to close Guantánamo. I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep us safe. It is expensive, it is inefficient, it hurts us in terms of our international standing, it lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts, it is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed,” The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly reports.
He continued, “The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity – even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, we’re having success defeating al Qaeda, we’ve kept pressure up on all these transnational terrorist networks, when we’ve transferred detention authority to Afghanistan – the idea that we would still maintain, forever, a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are, it’s contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has long represented some of the prisoners, lauded Obama’s comments, but noted the president should not place the entire onus on Congress to close the prison.
For instance, CCR said that Obama “still has the power to transfer the men right now. He should use the certification/waiver process created by Congress to transfer detainees with the 86 men who have been cleared for release, including our client Djamel Ameziane.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) likes to pin blame for the high vacancy rate on the federal bench on President Obama, saying he has not put forth enough nominees. Some befuddled reporters have bought and pushed Grassley’s line, or at least part of it to report that both parties are to blame in this matter.
Grassley and others, however, should take a look at the work of Jennifer Bendery at The Huffington Post, who notes, like other honest observers of the fight over judicial nominations, that the obstruction is and always has been the product of Republican senators. A careful look at the judicial nominations process reveals, she writes, “the bigger problem is Republican senators quietly refusing to recommend potential judges in the first place.”
Obama came into office promising to work with the other party and on judicial nominations that is what he’s attempted to do. In their 2012 book, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blast Republicans as being largely to blame for the heightened obstruction of nominations and legislation.
Citing a study by the Alliance for Justice, “Judicial Vacancies Without Nominees,” Bendery reveals it is rather lazy to report that both parties are to blame for the ongoing strife over judicial nominations and the large number of vacancies on the federal bench. Most of the nominees to the federal bench are to the district courts and senators, Bendery notes, jumpstart that process. Senators are supposed to make “recommendations from their home states, and the president works with them to get at least some of the nominees confirmed – the idea being that senators, regardless of party, are motivated to advocate for nominees from their states.”
The research from AFJ shows that it is largely Republicans who are stalling the process. Michelle Schwartz, director of AFJ”s Justice Programs, told Bendery, “It’s disingenuous at best for Republicans to complain about the number of judicial vacancies without nominees when Republicans themselves are responsible for the majority of those vacancies. Nearly two-thirds of the vacancies without nominees are in states with at least one Republican senator, most of whom have consistently refused to work with the White House in good faith to identify qualified candidates.”
If you’re one of the president’s nominees to the federal bench it helps to have a signficant connection to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).
Jane Kelly, an assistant public defender in Iowa, nominated in January to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit was today confirmed to the federal appeals court 96 – 0. She was nominated by President Obama in January. She is the second woman and first public defender to serve on the Eighth Circuit. Both state senators, Grassley and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) worked closely to move along the nomination.
But of course most nominees do not have the sort of backing Kelly received. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in a press statement lauding the confirmation, again noted that on average the president’s appeals court nominees “wait 132 days for a vote in the Senate, compared to just 18 days” for Obama’s predecessor.
Regardless of uninformed or brain-addled pundits who argue Obama is at fault for the judicial vacancy crisis or for filibusters of certain pieces of legislation, the reality is that Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) have stuck to agenda of obstruction. In the case of the federal bench, Senate Republicans have put aside the concerns of Americans who should and need to be able to rely on an efficient court system for political machinations.
Sen. Grassley, who supported Kelly, saying she is “well regarded in my home state” is also leading an effort to limit the president’s ability to fill vacancies on the 11-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The D.C. Circuit is one of the nation’s most important federal appeals courts, hearing complex litigation often focusing on high-profile constitutional concerns. Patricia Wald, who served on the D.C. Circuit for 20 years, wrote for The Washington Post that the Circuit “hears complex, time-consuming, labyrinthine disputes over regulations with the greatest impact on ordinary American lives: clean air and water regulations, nuclear plant safety, health-care reform issues, insider trading and more.”
Sri Srinivasan, President Obama’s second nominee to a vacant seat the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sailed through yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing largely because he did a masterful job of detailing his career, which offers few hints of an ideological leaning.
Yesterday, Adam Serwer, for Mother Jones, noted that very little is known about Srinivasan, other than he could be, if placed on the D.C. Circuit, a potential pick for the U.S. Supreme Court. If Srinivasan is confirmed, he will be the first South Asian American to serve on the D.C. Circuit. Serwer also touched upon aspects of Srinivasan’s legal career that might trouble progressives who believe the federal bench is in need of more progressive judges, instead of ones who cater to corporate interests.
Srinivasan said very little, if anything, to provide Republicans any cause to further delay his route to the D.C. Circuit. (Srinivasan’s hearing before the Committee came more than 300 days after the president nominated him.) He promised a fealty to precedent. And Republicans, such as U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who helped scuttle Caitlin Halligan’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit, announced he would support the nomination.
Republicans like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), however, are bent on rebranding the D.C. Circuit as a court with too many judges and a light caseload. At the start of the hearing Grassley, the Committee’s Ranking Member, announced the introduction of bill to cut the number of active judges on the D.C. Circuit to 8 from 11. Grassley’s bill, co-sponsored by Republican senators Hatch, Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), claims, “It is no secret that the D.C. Circuit is the least-busy, least-worked appellate court in the nation.”
It appears Senate Republicans are preparing to give Obama one chance to put a judge on the D.C. Circuit and no more, leaving the D.C. Circuit likely tilting rightward, though at the moment it’s impossible to know exactly what if any ideology Srinivasan carries. Moreover, a confirmation is certainly not assured in this climate.
Though then-presidential candidate Barack Obama often blasted President George W. Bush’s expansion of presidential powers to fight terrorism, once in the White House he quickly embraced those powers which have only swelled during his tenure.
“Our actions in defense of our liberty will be just as our costs, and that ‘We the People,’ will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security,” Obama said. “Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership.”
The president’s rhetoric, however, does not mesh with what we are discovering about the ramped up use of Reaper and Predator drones to target suspected terrorists. Reporting by Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times provides insight into the “origins of a covert drone war that began under the Bush administration, was embraced and expanded by President Obama, and is now the subject of fierce debate.”
Part of the debate includes whether the Obama administration has tossed aside some of the fundamental values the nation cherishes, such as due process and being a defender of human rights globally.
A “white paper,” leaked earlier this year and made public by NBC is apparently a summary of a lengthier document prepared by a few attorneys in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). The white paper makes the argument that a high-ranking government official, like the president, can order the killing of a U.S. citizen integral to or associated with al Qaeda abroad if the person poses an “imminent threat of violent attack” against America, the person is unlikely to be captured and that the killing operation would be conducted in accordance with laws governing war.” The OLC white paper also asserts that no court oversight of the administration’s targeted killing regime is required.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) will conduct a hearing on April 16* to explore the “constitutional and counterterrorism implications of targeted killings.” According to a statement announcing the hearing, senators will “also explore proposals to increase transparency regarding U.S. drone policy and establish a legal architecture to regulate drone strikes.”
The administration has endeavored to shroud its policy on drone warfare in secrecy, but release of the OLC white paper and the mounting numbers of civilians killed in drone strikes are making it more difficult to keep the policy under wraps. The ACLU has lodged a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to force the administration to release the entire memo, for instance.
The escalation of drone warfare is likely also not helping Obama’s desire for America to remain a beacon of “global leadership.” As The Times’ Scott Shane reports, since taking office the CIA and military “have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones.”