The Obama Administration and International Law - "The Law of 9/11"

Title: The Obama Administration and International Law

Author: Harold Hongju Koh (Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State)
Event: Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law
Location: Washington, DC
Published: March 25, 2010

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Quote: "We live in a time, when, as you know, the United States finds itself engaged in several armed conflicts. As the President has noted, one conflict, in Iraq, is winding down. He also reminded us that the conflict in Afghanistan is a “conflict that America did not seek, one in which we are joined by forty-three other countries… in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.”



B. The Law of 9/11

Let me focus the balance of my remarks on that aspect of my job that I call “The Law of 9/11.” In this area, as in the other areas of our work, we believe, in the President’s words, that “living our values doesn’t make us weaker, it makes us safer and it makes us stronger.”

We live in a time, when, as you know, the United States finds itself engaged in several armed conflicts. As the President has noted, one conflict, in Iraq, is winding down. He also reminded us that the conflict in Afghanistan is a “conflict that America did not seek, one in which we are joined by forty-three other countries… in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.” In the conflict occurring in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we continue to fight the perpetrators of 9/11: a nonstate actor, Al Qaeda (as well as the Taliban forces that harbored al Qaeda).

Everyone here at this meeting is committed to international law. But as President Obama reminded us, “the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world. … [T]he instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”

With this background, let me address a question on many of your minds: how has this Administration determined to conduct these armed conflicts and to defend our national security, consistent with its abiding commitment to international law? Let there be no doubt: the Obama Administration is firmly committed to complying with all applicable law, including the laws of war, in all aspects of these ongoing armed conflicts. As the President reaffirmed in his Nobel Prize Lecture, “Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct … [E]ven as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules … the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is the source of our strength.” We in the Obama Administration have worked hard since we entered office to ensure that we conduct all aspects of these armed conflicts – in particular, detention operations, targeting, and prosecution of terrorist suspects – in a manner consistent not just with the applicable laws of war, but also with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Let me say a word about each: detention, targeting, and prosecution.

1. Detention

With respect to detention, as you know, the last administration’s detention practices were widely criticized around the world, and as a private citizen, I was among the vocal critics of those practices. This Administration and I personally have spent much of the last year seeking to revise those practices to ensure their full compliance with domestic and international law, first, by unequivocally guaranteeing humane treatment for all individuals in U.S. custody as a result of armed conflict and second, by ensuring that all detained individuals are being held pursuant to lawful authorities.

a. Treatment

To ensure humane treatment, on his second full day in office, the President unequivocally banned the use of torture as an instrument of U.S. policy, a commitment that he has repeatedly reaffirmed in the months since. He directed that Executive officials could no longer rely upon the Justice Department OLC opinions that had permitted practices that I consider to be torture and cruel treatment -- many of which he later disclosed publicly -- and he instructed that henceforth, all interrogations of detainees must be conducted in accordance with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and with the revised Army Field Manual. An interagency review of U.S. interrogation practices later advised – and the President agreed – that no techniques beyond those in the Army Field Manual (and traditional noncoercive FBI techniques) are necessary to conduct effective interrogations. That Interrogation and Transfer Task Force also issued a set of recommendations to help ensure that the United States will not transfer individuals to face torture. The President also revoked Executive Order 13440, which had interpreted particular provisions of Common Article 3, and restored the meaning of those provisions to the way they have traditionally been understood in international law. The President ordered CIA “black sites” closed and directed the Secretary of Defense to conduct an immediate review – with two follow-up visits by a blue ribbon task force of former government officials – to ensure that the conditions of detention at Guantanamo fully comply with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. Last December, I visited Guantanamo, a place I had visited several times over the last two decades, and I believe that the conditions I observed are humane and meet Geneva Conventions standards.

As you all know, also on his second full day in office, the President ordered Guantanamo closed, and his commitment to doing so has not wavered, even as closing Guantanamo has proven to be an arduous and painstaking process. Since the beginning of the Administration, through the work of my colleague Ambassador Dan Fried, we have transferred approximately 57 detainees to 22 different countries, of whom 33 were resettled in countries that are not the detainees’ countries of origin. Our efforts continue on a daily basis. Just this week, five more detainees were transferred out of Guantanamo for resettlement. We are very grateful to those countries who have contributed to our efforts to close Guantanamo by resettling detainees; that list continues to grow as more and more countries see the positive changes we are making and wish to offer their support.

During the past year, we completed an exhaustive, rigorous, and collaborative interagency review of the status of the roughly 240 individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay when President Obama took office. The President’s Executive Order placed responsibility for review of each Guantanamo detainee with six entities –the Departments of Justice, State, Defense, and Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff – to collect and consolidate from across the government all information concerning the detainees and to ensure that diplomatic, military, intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement viewpoints would all be fully considered in the review process. This interagency task force, on which several State Department attorneys participated, painstakingly considered each and every Guantanamo detainee’s case to assess whether the detainee could be transferred or repatriated consistently with national security, the interests of justice, and our policy not to transfer individuals to countries where they would likely face torture or persecution. The six entities ultimately reached unanimous agreement on the proper disposition of all detainees subject to review. As the President has made clear, this is not a one-time review; there will be “a thorough process of periodic review, so that any prolonged detention is carefully evaluated and justified.” Similarly, the Department of Defense has created new review procedures for individuals held at the detention facility in Parwan at Bagram airfield, Afghanistan, with increased representation for detainees, greater opportunities to present evidence, and more transparent proceedings. Outside organizations have begun to monitor these proceedings, and even some of the toughest critics have acknowledged the positive changes that have been made.

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Nine years, and the State Department and FBI still aren't on the same page. Doesn't State know that the FBI has said they have no solid evidence linking bin Laden (and, by extension, al Qaeda and the Taliban) to 9/11?