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Drone Use: Obama Administration Needs Rules, Transparency

22 Jun

The following op-ed was written by ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Chris Ahmuty and appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Another View, “Government Needs Rules, Transparency in Drone Use.”

The United States military and Central Intelligence Agency are using armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists, including American citizens.  While President Obama’s top security adviser, John Brennan, finally acknowledged this practice in April, these extrajudicial killings are still shrouded in secrecy.   It is only possible to say with confidence that in recent months drones have been used to kill individuals who have been “nominated” for and placed on a secret “kill list” often with the personal involvement of President Obama.  The United States has used drones for this purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan, where our country has been at war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where we are not officially at war.  American citizens have been among those targeted and among those who are among the collateral damage of such operations.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for greater transparency from the Obama administration.  A good start would be for the Obama administration to release the Justice Department memos related to this secret process, including any that purport to explain the legal authority for the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects.

Drones already come in many sizes and appear to be a technological fix for some difficult operational and political issues in the war on terrorism.   Drones can be controlled from great distances, thereby protecting the lives of their operators, if not Afghan or Yemeni noncombatants; a fact Al Qaeda recruiters point out.   Drones may be more precise than conventional fighter attacks, thereby offering the opportunity to reduce the loss of innocent lives, but apparently sometimes President Obama makes exceptions to this goal.  Chillingly, drones kill and maim but don’t take prisoners, thereby reducing the pressure to examine our government’s policy of indefinite detention of some prisoners in the everlasting war on terrorism.

There are undoubtedly legitimate and legal uses for this technology.  But like other technologies, such as “enhanced interrogation methods”, use of global positioning systems to track an individual’s whereabouts 24/7, data mining of financial and other personal records and online activity, or even new full body scanning devices at the airport, drone technology does not absolve leaders in the federal executive branch, from their responsibility of using it in lawful ways that are consistent with our values.

When one examines this issue it is clear that drones have allowed targeted killings to become an important tactic in the war on terrorism without the public’s knowledge of basic information or the checks and balances our constitution requires.  Drones may have severely impacted Al Qaeda in the short term, but they may have also made more difficult a long term counterterrorism strategy utilizing America’s great strength – our belief that the rule of law and civil liberties will protect our families’ freedoms from government abuse.

Polls show that Americans as a whole, if not most ACLU members, support the use of drones for targeted killings by a wide margin.   The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to allow drones for law enforcement and perhaps military purposes in our country.  Hopefully the buzz you hear above your head at a cookout within the next few years will be a mosquito and not a drone.

Madison: Guantanamo Prison’s 10th Anniversary Marked by Local Events

9 Jan gitmo_fb_ribbon_white

Madison groups are marking the tenth anniversary of the opening of the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba next week.  These local events are part of a national campaign to close Guantánamo.

TAKE ACTION TODAY: Join the ACLU in asking President Obama to keep his promise to close the prison camp by charging and trying the prisoners who are there, or sending them home.

Monday, January 9, 12 noon to 1 pm, at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and Doty St – Madison Vigil for Peace action to close Guantánamo, including street theater with orange jumpsuits.

  • Tuesday, January 10, at 7 pm in the Predolin Hall auditorium, Edgewood College – “Guantánamo, Military Tribunals and the Rule of Law,” a discussion hosted by the United Nations Association of Dane County and Witness Against Torture – Madison.  The evening begins with a screening ofThe Response,” a courtroom drama based on transcripts of the Guantanamo military tribunals.
  • Wednesday, January 11, at 7 pm at Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse, 1101 Williamson Street – Evening of action to close Guantánamo, including writing letters to policymakers and current detainees. Poetry written by detainees.

For more information, contact the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice at (608) 250-9240 or diane@wnpj.org.

The first men arrived at the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on January 11, 2002.  Of the 779 people who have been detained there over the years, only six have been convicted of any crime by a military tribunal.  Most of the 171 remaining detainees were captured simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Most could leave tomorrow if the blanket ban on repatriations to Yemen were lifted.

This month also marks the third anniversary of President Obama’s Executive Order mandating the closure of the Guantánamo detention center within one year.  Not only has the President failed to carry out the Order, he has extended some of the worst aspects of the Guantánamo system by continuing indefinite detentions without charge or trial, employing illegitimate military commissions to try some suspects, and blocking accountability for torture by refusing to conduct independent and thorough investigations, and by attempting to prevent the courts from reviewing lawsuits brought by formerly detained men.

As the tenth anniversary of Guantánamo approaches, the number of experts calling for its closure is growing. Five former U.S. Secretaries of State – including Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright and Colin Powell – concur that closing down the prison camp would be a major step towards repairing the U.S. image abroad. Even George W. Bush has said he would “like Guantánamo to end.”

Read today’s op-ed in the Capitol Times from Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Madison’s Congregation Shaarei Shamayim on why Gitmo must be closed.

Lakhdar Boumediene reflected in Sunday’s New York Times on that anniversary and tells the harrowing tale of the seven and a half years he spent imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. Read more on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

We Must Now Reclaim Our Liberties: Ten Years After 9/11

10 Sep

Ten years after the horrific events of September 11, 2001 the American people are right to remember and honor those who died in at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.  The ten-year mark of the 9/11 attacks also importantly provides an opportunity to reflect on the turbulent decade behind us, and to recommit ourselves to values that define our nation, including justice, due process, and the rule of law.

Nearly ten years ago on September 23, 2001, I wrote in the Journal Sentinel, “Americans, in and out of the Congress, will have to evaluate carefully, ‘anti-terrorism’ proposals that may have an impact on the civil liberties that protect our freedom.”   Much of the government’s response to the attacks against us was done without proper deliberation.  Much of the government’s response was initiated without the benefit of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation and report.  It is no wonder that we are still facing challenges, despite a “global war on terrorism” that seems to be an everywhere and forever war.

The records of the Bush and the Obama administrations reveal many actions that have undermined our ability to remain safe and free.  Congress has done no better.  Some in Congress are attempting to undermine the Constitution by giving the president a blank check for a worldwide, endless war.  This would be a clear abdication of Congress’s role in our system of checks and balances – the Constitution clearly gives only Congress the power to declare war.

Targeted killings in the name of our security continue without any way for us to know whether people our government kills are truly a threat to our country. Prisoners who have never had a trial are still held at Guantanamo.  Although evidence of torture and death at U.S.-run detention facilities like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and CIA “black sites” exists, no single victim of torture has had a day in court due to the “states secrets” privilege and immunity doctrines our government invokes to defend itself from being held accountable for these human rights abuses.

And, we need not look overseas to see how American freedoms are threatened in ways that may not make us safer, much less safe.

At the Mitchell Field, you get to choose between full-body scanners that reveal near-naked outlines of our bodies or an offensive pat-down by TSA workers. Phone companies are willing to hand over your call records to the government without warrants or suspicion of criminal activity of individuals. Taking pictures of landmarks is enough to make you the subject of a “suspicious activity report” in a terrorist behavior data base. Surveillance by the government has tracked racial minorities, religious groups, peace protesters, college students and journalists.

Government policies that target groups by race, ethnicity or religion are counterproductive and make us less safe.  Experienced intelligence and law-enforcement officials agree that profiling based on race, religion and ideology is ineffective, inefficient, and counter-productive.

This anniversary is a fitting time to remember and stirs deep emotion and concern among our fellow Americans.   This is entirely legitimate and to be expected ten years into a war. But, despite the passing of a decade and the changing of leadership in the White House and Congress, we continue to allow the fear of terrorism to cloud our political discourse.   We must have the courage to affirm what makes  America great.  What I wrote in 2001 is still valid: “Freedom is more than just a goal; it is the bulwark of our democracy and the spirit that lifts individuals and families in countless ways.  It makes us safer and stronger.”

- Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director, ACLU of Wisconsin

Read the report: A Call to Courage – Reclaiming Our Liberty Ten Years After 9/11 from the national American Civil Liberties Union

This opinion piece was also featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Crossroads on Sunday, September 11, 2011.

More on issue ads, Election Day went well for Election Protection, post-election priorities

7 Nov

Free Speech
As a follow up to the position the ACLU of Wisconsin took on the governmental intervention on recent issue ads. We also got some coverage in Greater Milwaukee Today. We even shocked, shocked (!) the Executive Director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin that we took a stand against censorship.

Voting Rights
US Representative Tammy Baldwin was quoted in an Election Day Cap Times opinion piece about her thoughts about restoring the rule of law which are pretty much in lockstep with the ACLU’s post-election priorities. Now if we can get the rest of Congress to see the light.

Voting problems were minimal in Madison on Election Day. The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation worked with local and statewide non-partisan civic engagement groups to organize an Election Protection effort. Our poll watchers were typically outnumbered at least five-to-one by Obama campaign voter protection lawyers and volunteers. Poll workers tended to be annoyed at the overwhelming presence of observers, but everyone involved seemed to be grateful that business at the polls went pretty smoothly.

Here’s a summary of the Election Protection effort in other states.

Rule of Law
So we have a new President-elect. Now what? Here is a Milwaukee Shepherd Express “open letter to President-elect Obama” with quotes from some ACLU friends.

Law.com had this interview with Philippe Sands, author of “Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values.” In it, Sands describes what President-elect Obama should do to roll back the damage of the Bush administration and says, “taken as a whole, the last eight years have been catastrophic for perceptions of the U.S. around the world and its capacity to fulfill its historic engagement with the rule of law.”

Why the ACLU is getting involved at Guantanamo…

4 Apr

An important story broke today in the Wall Street Journal about the ACLU’s role in the Guantánamo Bay military commissions.

Below is a statement from the national ACLU director on why the ACLU’s involvement underscores our committment to the rule of law and to a credible judicial system that is central to American values.

Statement From Anthony D. Romero
ACLU Executive Director

There are times in this country when we find ourselves at a crossroads — where the path we choose has the potential to define us as a nation for generations to come.

No doubt we’ve been at a critical juncture since September 11. How we respond to the atrocities thrust upon us after that terrible day says everything about who we are as Americans — what values we defend, how the world sees us, and how history will remember us.

The manner in which we seek justice against those accused of harming us will determine whether the United States will be seen at home and abroad as a nation of laws. We must decide whether we live the values of justice that make us proud to be Americans, or whether we will forsake those values and continue down a path of arbitrary rules and procedures more befitting those who are our enemies. Because we are a great nation, true to our founders’ vision, we must uphold our core values even in the toughest of times. The right to a speedy trial in a court of law before an objective arbiter; the right to due process; the right to rebut the evidence against you; the right not to be tortured or waterboarded, or convicted on the basis of hearsay evidence are what truly define America and our commitment to the rule of law and our founders’ aspirations.

The military commissions set up by the Bush administration for the men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay — including those it suspects were involved in the September 11 attacks — are not true American justice. These trials should represent who we are, what America stands for, and our commitment to due process. They are not about how civilized the accused are, but how civilized we are. America does not stand for trials that rely on torture to gain confessions, or on secret evidence that a defendant cannot rebut, or on hearsay evidence.

For these reasons, the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers have taken on the task of assembling defense teams to be available to assist in the representation of those Guantánamo detainees who have been charged under the Military Commissions Act, subject to the detainees’ consent.

We take this step because we simply cannot stand by and allow the Bush administration’s military commissions to make a mockery of our Constitution and our values. We believe in the American justice system — despite its imperfections and distortions by pundits, politicians and ideologues — and we believe we can make the system stronger by engaging it and fighting for what is right, fighting for fair trials and for America’s reputation.

It is when the stakes are the highest and when tempers run the hottest that we must work doubly hard to keep a check on our government and prevent it from trading in our values for visceral and political motives — no matter what the motivation. It is during the most challenging situations that our country’s values are most intensely tested, and along with them, the ACLU’s commitment to its core principles. We are determined, as we have always been, to meet this challenge.

For more information on how the ACLU is challenging the Military Commissions Act, please visit the John Adams Project page of the national ACLU website.