U.S. Dons the Cape: The Quest for Syrian Peace

As Americans swarmed to theaters to see the new Superman movie, President Obama once again flew to Ireland for the G-8 summit to try and save the world. Russian President Vladimir Putin clung to his support of Bashir Al Assad’s Syrian regime in the faces of seven frustrated Western leaders. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the conference “G-7 plus one,” and berated Putin for supporting Assad’s “thugs” (Whoever said Canadians were non-confrontational?).

Putin’s Senior Political Advisor, Yuri Ushakov, supported the claim that Assad using chemical weapons “does not look convincing” in defense of Russia’s continued aid to Assad’s forces. However, while the planes were landing in Ireland, Assad’s representatives were shopping for aircraft in Russia (Don’t worry. Russia only gave them 10 new MiG jet fighters that they implied should be used for defense only – defense from all that rebel aircraft that doesn’t exist).

Once again the US finds itself now a little more battle weary by stepping up to fight the bad guys. Though Britain and France threw their support behind the rebels long ago, they have gladly ceded the reigns of control of the operation to the US. In short, here we go again. But this time, let’s actually be the good guys. As Angelina Jolie reported to the UN this week, every 14 seconds a citizen crosses the Syrian border and becomes a refuge (half of them are children).  Something obviously needs to be done here.

Robert Springborg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in CA, opined, “This is the story of two drowning men clutching on to one another. We have every interest to ensure both drown.” What better movie plot is there? Two dictators, political oppression with military force, displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians – practically an invitation for Superman US to save the day. Time to take the identity-confounding glasses off Clark and show them who the men (and women) of steel really are!

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Guantanamo Detainees Request Independent Medical Services

Last month, 13 Guantanamo detainees wrote an open letter requesting independent medical examinations and advice. The detainees, who are using their hunger strike as a means of communication and to gain global attention, said that they did not trust military doctors whom they accused of putting their duties to their superiors above their duties to their patients, in violation of the ethics of their profession. In response, more than 150 doctors, including some from the US, have signed an open letter to President Obama, urging the administration to allow Guantanamo detainees to receive new treatment. The letter, which was published in Lancet, stated:

“Without trust, safe and acceptable medical care of mentally competent patients is impossible. Since the detainees do not trust their military doctors, they are unlikely to comply with current medical advice. That makes it imperative for them to have access to independent medical examination and advice, as they ask, and as required by the UN and World Medical Association.”

The question is whether or not the actions taken by the Guantanamo medics are ethical. According to the World Medical Association, force-feeding hunger strikers of sound mind is never ethically acceptable. The WMA has stated: “Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading statement.” Therefore, the means by which the medical staff is keeping the detainees alive violates international law, and to some, constitutes torture. However, it is a doctor’s duty to provide life-sustaining treatment. Unlike Cruzan v. Dir. Missouri Dep’t Health which held that competent adults have the right to refuse forced feeding, even if death will result, Washington v. Harper held that prison officials could override a prisoner’s objection to forcibly being administered medication, assuming that it’s in the prisoner’s best medical interest. So what other viable treatment options do these physician’s have, given that the detainees remain on hunger strike? While the means to force feed someone are gruesome and painful, wouldn’t it be even worse if we allowed our detainees to starve themselves to death?

President Obama has stated that America should never practice torture and that Guantanamo should be closed. The only way that will happen is if we have healthy detainees, fit to either stand trial or to be sent elsewhere. If this is truly what he wants, the best place to start is by ending this hunger strike. In this case, he should start listening to his detainees and allow for independent medical examinations. The detainees’ aren’t going to stop their hunger strike, and the medical examiners aren’t going to stop force-feeding them.  If no one is going to give, the President should force somebody’s hand.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Trials for Alleged 9/11 Plotters Resume at Guantanamo Bay

Lost in the shuffle during a week where the NSA scandal has dominated headlines is more news coming out of Guantanamo Bay.  On Monday, the government released the identity of Guantanamo’s “indefinite detainees,” or those who the government has deemed too dangerous for release regardless of whether they can be tried in a military court.  The government has already announced that a number of these detainees will be held indefinitely even though they cannot be tried due to lack of evidence. The names have been kept secret since 2009 when multiple agencies investigated files on detainees in order to support President Obama’s initial effort to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center.  Normally these detainees could not be constitutionally held without the possibility of trial, but in 2001 Congress authorized the practice with the “Authorization of Military Force” bill.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international have condemned the idea of “indefinite detainees,” calling for the release of all prisoners that the government has no intention of trying in a court of law.  Some men on the “indefinite detainees” list are actively involved in the well-documented hunger strikes.  At least two, both Afghani men, are deceased, with one committing suicide and the other dying of natural causes in Camp 6.  While the practice of holding detainees without the possibility of trial may be controversial, the release of their identities is a small step towards the transparency and legitimacy that human rights groups have been calling for in recent years.

In other Guantanamo-related news, pre-trial hearings for five men accused of plotting the September 11th attacks resumed on Monday, four months after CIA listening devices were discovered in conference rooms used by the detainees’ attorneys.  Included in this group is Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks.  The hearings included statements from defense attorneys claiming that CIA personnel tortured the detainees while they were being held in overseas prisons prior to their transfer to Guantanamo Bay.  They have also filed motions to dismiss the case due to meddling by senior military officials.

Also present in the courtroom were two victims and family members of three other victims that perished in the attacks.  The observers met with prosecutors and defense attorneys earlier in the week and pleaded for a quick and efficient trial.  At least one victim, a firefighter who was injured by falling rubble in the aftermath of the attacks, is expected to testify on behalf of the prosecution.  As one could imagine, the trials will probably not be very speedy.  Detainee trials at Guantanamo have been ridiculed for many reasons, one of the biggest being that they are inefficient and often take years to complete.  These particular observers have been waiting on an outcome for some twelve years.  Although the trials are resuming, we may have to wait a lot longer to see a resolution.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

UPDATE: NSA Whistleblower Comes Forward with More Accusations

Since The Guardian broke the NSA surveillance story twelve days ago, much information has come to light about both the PRISM program and Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and whistleblower.  In those twelve days we have learned that the NSA has secretly been collecting metadata from telephone companies in an effort to detect patterns that could undermine terrorist plots against the United States.  On top of that, we learned that the government is in the middle of constructing data collection centers that will store telephone and Internet records with the same aim of preventing terrorism.  The ACLU has already announced plans to sue the Obama administration over the constitutionality of the NSA’s activities.  It seems like something new has come out each day, and that the scandal goes deeper than anyone would have imagined.  We don’t know what else might come to light at this point.

In fact, we learned even more this weekend, and this new information might be the most damning part of the story.  Snowden uncovered documents that claim that since 2009, the U.S. and British government have been eavesdropping on phone calls and computer-based communication between foreign diplomats at G20 summits, most notably the 2009 summit in London.  The accusation included claims that fake Internet cafes were set up by the British government in London specifically for the purpose or monitoring diplomatic communications.  It appears that the NSA and its British counterparts GCHQ and MI6 shared information on these communications.

Accusations of spying and surveillance at international conferences are not new, but this is one of the first instances where it has been backed by government documents of this nature.  The documents showed that the HCHQ had the ability to hack into Blackberries and other smartphones, and that information gathered from foreign diplomats was passed along to government ministers.  We don’t know what information was gathered from these surveillance programs, but it would probably be safe to say that this story will not help build trust amongst G20 nations.  Great Britain is in a particularly precarious position as another G8 summit began earlier today in neighboring Ireland.  It’s safe to say that this will add tension to a conference that was already set to discuss government transparency issues.

In regard to the NSA’s surveillance scandal, government officials are still running damage control and defending the use of metadata collection as a form of counterterrorism.  On Saturday, top intelligence officials claimed that the programs had thwarted terrorist attacks in 20 countries in recent years.  They also stated that any data collected is destroyed after five years, and that the programs are not nearly as sweeping as critics say.  The claims probably won’t do much to calm these critics, as the government’s credibility is rather questionable at the moment.  On top of that, the efficiency of tactics used by the NSA is still being questioned.  If they really led to 20 foiled terrorist attacks, why can’t experts agree that they are worthwhile?  This may be the biggest problem with government secrecy.  We can’t believe the government without proof, but the government is still protecting whatever proof may or may not exist.  The chances of anyone taking the NSA’s word for it as this point are slim to none.

With that out of the way, I’d like to talk about Edward Snowden.  Here’s the interview he did with The Guardian last week.  He’s a 29 year-old former CIA technical assistant and employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a government defense contractor, and he has proven to be just as polarizing as the story he uncovered.  Some are calling him a hero for uncovering a scandal that reached the presidency.  These people claim that he has taken a stand for our constitutional rights and deserves a great deal of credit for blowing the whistle on shady government action.  Others claim that he has seriously jeopardized our national security and deserves to be punished for treason.  His credibility has been questioned, but the NSA has admitted to the PRISM program and he has provided documents that support his accusations of spying at the G20 summits.  Regardless of which stance you take, it’s clear that he has violated a number of federal laws and regulations.  So why is he still a free man?

Snowden is currently in Hong Kong, presumably to escape federal prosecutions for releasing this information to the media.  Yes, that’s right, the whistleblower is currently hiding out in the shining beacon of freedom and free speech that is China.  Some members of the media have speculated that he is in cahoots with the Chinese government and may be selling them government secrets on top of releasing information to the media.  After all, he certainly has access to sensitive information that China would love to have, especially given the strained relationship between the U.S. and China.  But that relationship may also play another role in his decision to flee to Hong Kong.  When it’s all said and done, how likely is China hand Snowden over to the U.S. for prosecution?  Probably not very likely.   He has information that they want, and he has caused a great deal of turmoil for a government that the Chinese have been competing with for a long time.  He also stated in his interview with The Guardian that he does not expect to see home again.  At least for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t look like Snowden will have to answer to the U.S. for his actions, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it.

Either way, Edward Snowden has uncovered a story that does not seem to be going away.  New information comes to light daily, and the scandal is becoming more and more serious.  On top of attacking the Obama administration and the NSA, he has now brought the British government into the mix.  Whether you regard him as a hero or a moneygrubber, he has seemingly found a safe haven in China and we probably haven’t heard the last of his accusations.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Bluffdale, UT – Home of the NSA Data Center

Outside Salt Lake City, nestled on the outskirts of Bluffdale, lies the Utah Data Center, the new home for the NSA’s expanding information stockpile. The building, taking two years to construct and costing $1.7 billion, will soon host supercomputers meant to store data from emails, phone calls, Google searches, and more. By September, the Center will employ approximately 200 technicians and will be the center for the NSA’s cloud-based data.

The NSA claims it will not illegally eavesdrop on Americans, but has been vague beyond that. Some experts say the center will store data; others claim the center to have the capacity to analyze and break codes, permitting endless eavesdropping.

So, what is the purpose of this new center, and why are we just now paying attention to it? Reports and concerns regarding the Data Center aren’t new. James Bamford reported on it back in March 2012 for Wired Magazine. Quoting an unidentified senior intelligence official who at the time was involved with the program, the Center “is more than just a data center” and “is critical for breaking codes,” as much of the data that the center will handle – financial information, stock transactions, business deals, foreign military and diplomatic secrets, legal documents, confidential personal communications – is heavily encrypted. It is the role of these super computers to unencrypt the information. What will then come of this unencrypted, for now, can only be left to the imagination.

Putting the copious legal issues aside, technological and security issues and complications with this data storage center are easily foreseeable. NSA chief General Keith Alexander stated last month that we are vulnerable to attacks similar to those that destroyed data on tens of thousands of computers in Saudi Arabia and South Korea this past year. On Wednesday he stated, “On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being strongly defended, our critical infrastructure’s preparedness to withstand a destructive cyber attack is about a three based on my experience.” I guess it’s a good thing, then, that we are now cataloguing and storing copious amounts of private information in one centralized location. (Yes, that was sarcasm).

While much of the NSA surveillance remains unclear, one thing is for sure: Big Brother is listening. More on the NSA to come.

Alexandra Kutner, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

Chemical Weapons Use by Syrian Government Leads to Direct U.S. Military Aid to Rebels

Syria, a country scarred by decades of violent repression, erupted into civil war in mid-2011. Students were tortured for anti-government sentiments and live ammunition was routinely fired into crowds of protesters. The Human Rights Watch revealed in July 2012 that the Syrian government maintained at least 27 torture centers. In time, an insurgency arose, resorting to militant means to overthrow the Assad government.

The US has been reluctant to intervene in Syria’s affairs, though the plea for help has grown stronger with each passing month. Despite the $515 million in humanitarian assistance delivered to the Syrian opposition, Congress has been pressuring the Obama administration to provide munitions (including missiles) and to declare of a no-fly zone. The most notable opposition derives from Republican Sen. McCain: “This is not only a humanitarian issue. It is a national security issue. If Iran succeeds in keeping Bashar al Assad in power, that will send a message throughout the Middle East of Iranian power.” In addition, Democratic Sen. Casey urges that even provision of heavy weaponry may not be enough support for the Syrian opposition.

On June 13, 2013, intelligence confirmed the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government on at least four occasions. The weapons have reportedly killed between 100 and 150 people. In response, President Obama announced that the Assad regime had crossed the “red line” the US had drawn and authorized direct military aid to rebel forces. The White House Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications stated, “The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.”

So begins a new chapter in the Syrian civil war: Hope. A chapter the U.S. will help write.

Chelsea Perdue, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

ACLU Sues Obama Administration over NSA Surveillance

Last week, The Guardian reported that under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the NSA has been acquiring the metadata for every phone call (wireless and landline) made or received by customers of Verizon Business Network on an ongoing basis. The government confirmed that an order was issued by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) requiring Verizon business Network to turn over metadata about the calls made by each of its subscribers over the 3 month period ending on July 19, 2013.

The ACLU is a non-profit group that has historically fought to protect individual freedoms both implicit and explicit in our constitution—freedom of speech, equality, due process, privacy etc. So it’s no surprise that the ACLU, a current customer of the Verizon Business Network, and New York ACLU, a former customer, filed suit against the Obama Administration claiming that the government’s surveillance under Section 215 is violative of the First and Fourth Amendments because it allows the government sensitive and privileged information about both their work and clients.

It is the ACLU’s contention that this government surveillance of phone calls can be used to identify those who contact plaintiffs for legal assistance or to report human rights or civil liberties violations. In the specific context for which the Patriot Act was enacted this is particularly problematic as the ACLU has in the past represented alleged terrorists (see Hamdi v. Rumsfeld). So it’s pretty clear that the government’s surveillance of phone calls of Verizon business Network customers has the potential to frustrate the ACLU’s goals of promoting and protecting individual liberties of its clients.

Alison Frimmel, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research

More Government Secrecy in Detainee Trials at Guantanamo Bay

Later this week, the trial of an alleged al-Qaeda bomber and current Guantanamo Bay detainee suspected of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole will continue, and one of the first items on the docket is a top secret motion from the government.  Classified motions are not exactly rare in military trials against detainees, but this one is particularly interesting.  Those who know the contents of the motion are barred from discussing any of its contents, and even the defendant, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and his defense team are not allowed to obtain declassified information regarding the motion unless the Army judge presiding over the trial compels it.  In fact, al-Nashiri’s lead attorney told reporters that his defense team had to fly to Washington, D.C. just to read it.

Army Brig. General Mark Martins, the government’s lead prosecutor on war crimes, insisted that his office was not using classification to cover up any embarrassing episodes, stating that there are “important narrow occasions” where the government may classify information “to protect national security interests.”  Still, the motion has already attracted negative attention from critics of the Pentagon court, which uses the motto “Fairness – Transparency – Justice.”  Yale law professor Eugene Fidell likened the motion to playing charades in the dark.  Even before news of the classified motion was released, a defense attorney filed a motion in May opposing any closure of future motions against al-Nashiri.

Military hearings at Guantanamo have been criticized for some time due to concerns over secrecy and the legitimacy of hearings against detainees, and this news will only add fuel to the fire.  The government is seeking the death penalty against al-Nashiri, and anything less than full disclosure of the government’s case against him leads to serious questions regarding the fairness of military trials against detainees.  In fact, Professor Fidell was quoted as saying,

“We’re supposed to be talking about the rule of law. You can have an all-star team of justices – Cardozo, Brandeis, Holmes, John Marshall, Stevens, Brennan, take your pick – and if they’re working in a closet you can forget about it in terms of public confidence in the administration of justice.”

The timing of this news was poor for the government in light of the recent leak of information regarding the NSA’s surveillance scandal.  With public concern regarding government secrecy rapidly growing, we should expect a great deal of criticism regarding the use of classified motions against detainees at Guantanamo.  And when the stakes are so high, we should be calling for more transparency and legitimacy in trials against detainees.

Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research