Should I Hate Obama For Signing The NDAA?

3 Jan

Short answer: No.

So, why are others really hating it.

“President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director. “The statute is particularly dangerous because it has no temporal or geographic limitations, and can be used by this and future presidents to militarily detain people captured far from any battlefield. The ACLU will fight worldwide detention authority wherever we can, be it in court, in Congress, or internationally.”

Under the Bush administration, similar claims of worldwide detention authority were used to hold even a U.S. citizen detained on U.S. soil in military custody, and many in Congress now assert that the NDAA should be used in the same way again. The ACLU believes that any military detention of American citizens or others within the United States is unconstitutional and illegal, including under the NDAA. In addition, the breadth of the NDAA’s detention authority violates international law because it is not limited to people captured in the context of an actual armed conflict as required by the laws of war.

“We are incredibly disappointed that President Obama signed this new law even though his administration had already claimed overly broad detention authority in court,” said Romero. “Any hope that the Obama administration would roll back the constitutional excesses of George Bush in the war on terror was extinguished today. Thankfully, we have three branches of government, and the final word belongs to the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on the scope of detention authority. But Congress and the president also have a role to play in cleaning up the mess they have created because no American citizen or anyone else should live in fear of this or any future president misusing the NDAA’s detention authority.”

There’s also the campaign pledge to close GITMO, a promise which this signing breaks. But, let me play devil’s advocate with myself, and ask if the NDAA is really that bad (via Opinio Juris).

So if it doesn’t significantly expand the government’s detention authority, doesn’t authorize detention of citizens, doesn’t really mandate the military detention of other terrorist suspects, and doesn’t do more to prevent the closure of Gitmo than does current law, what’s all the fuss about? Is it even important?

The final bill is, indeed, far less consequential than earlier versions would have been. Much of the fuss is overblown. That said, the bill has several important elements:

  • The codification of detention authority in statute is a significant development, not because it enables anything that Congress had previously forbidden but because it puts the legislature squarely behind a set of policies on which it had always retained a kind of strategic ambiguity–a tolerance for detention without a clear endorsement of it of the sort that would make members accountable. Congress has now given that endorsement, and that is no small thing.
  • The transfer restrictions will continue to have negative effects on administration management of detainee affairs, reducing flexibility and agility and compelling the continued detention of people the administration does not want to detain, in a status the administration does not wish to use, and at a facility it would prefer to vacate. That this is no change from current law–indeed, that the NDAA offers slightly more flexibility than does current law–does not make these restrictions any less troublesome.
  • The rump mandatory detention provision remains a bit of a wild card that could have mischievous effects in practice. Though it ends up requiring very little, it does impose–as we have described–a default option of military detention for certain categories of cases. And this option might prove politically difficult to jettison.

Is there anything in the NDAA about which human rights groups and civil libertarians ought to be pleased?

Yes, actually, there is. Section 1024 of the bill, as we’ve noted, requires that people subject to long-term military detention in circumstances not already subject to habeas corpus review–think the Detention Facility in Parwan, Afghanistan–henceforth shall have the right to a military lawyer and a proceeding before a military judge in order to contest the government’s factual basis for believing them to be subject to detention. This is an extraordinary and novel development. Detainees in Afghanistan currently have access to the Detainee Review Board process, which as described in this article already provide a relatively robust screening mechanism, particularly compared to years past. The DRB process does not include lawyers and judges, however, and human rights advocacy groups have criticized them on this ground. Requiring lawyers and judges to staff out the screening process is a pretty remarkable shift in the direction of accomodating those concerns.

What’s more, while human rights groups have decried the codification of detention authority, the codification does preclude certain interpretations of the AUMF that human rights groups hated. For example, while the difference between the D.C. Circuit’s embrace of the “purposefully and materially support” standard and the administration’s language seems pretty slight, the D.C. Circuit language did–which the NDAA now jettisons–keep critics up at night. And the D.C. Circuit famously flirted in one case with the notion that international law does not inform or limit detention authority under the AUMF–a position that the explicit references to the “law of war” in the NDAA seems to reject.

In short, the bill is a mixed bag–almost no matter what vantage point one examines it from.

Is this act a reason not to re-elect President Obama? I honestly haven’t decided yet.

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