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Legal Experts Debate the Meaning of Battlefield Detention

Since my piece on the intensifying battle over “preventive detention” was published, Ken Gude from the Center for American Progress wrote to point out an important distinction that deserves more emphasis.

As I note in my story, Gude and Kate Martin, Director of the Center for National Security Studies, have both written in support of the president’s right to detain combatants under the laws of war. But that support raises two key questions: who is a combatant and what is a war?

Congress, in passing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in 2001, allowed the president to wage war “against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States” — namely, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, when they ran Afghanistan. But since no one walks around wearing al-Qaeda or Taliban uniforms, who’s actually a member and therefore detainable remains a major point of contention.

Similarly, the laws of war allow for the detention of a combatant captured on the battlefield until the conflict is over. But whether the battlefield is the specific zone where U.S. forces are stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or an area as broad as anywhere in the world that terrorists who hate the United States may be found, is hotly debated. Many of the lawyers I cite in my piece today, such as Martin, Gude and the eleven lawyers who signed the letter to President Obama imploring him not to authorize some new form of preventive detention, argue for the geographically more limited definition of detention.

As Gude wrote in The Guardian: “During this ongoing military conflict, the US clearly possess the authority to detain enemy fighters captured on the battlefield or fleeing from it.”

And as the military and defense lawyers write in their letter to Obama, the laws of war “do not authorize the detention of people for terrorist activities far from the battlefield, which are not acts of war but criminal acts.”

The Bush administration interpreted the laws of war far more expansively than that, however, seizing and detaining for years suspected terrorist sympathizers as far away as Thailand, Bosnia and Illinois. Few, if any, civil libertarians would approve of such an expansive reading of the president’s wartime detention authority.

Yet those who advocate new detention legislation, such as Benjamin Wittes at Brookings, think that distinction makes little sense. And that’s why they want an entirely new system that is not constrained by the laws of war.

Because in Wittes’s view, the laws of war allow you to detain, say, a not-very-important Taliban foot soldier, but not a leading al-Qaeda agent who’s found in Pakistan, far from the zone of conflict.

“Say you raid a safe-house in Pakistan,” he said yesterday. “You capture Abu Zubaydah. There are 10 people there with him, but nowhere near the battlefield. But they’re close enough to a very senior al-Qaeda member, and involved with building live bombs.” The government ought to be able to detain them all, says Wittes, yet the laws of war don’t necessarily allow that.

“My basic point is that the laws of war unambiguously detain a group of people who are frankly not the real problem in the counter-terrorism arena. And they give you only very ambiguous detention authority with respect to people who are the molten core of the problem … so why not have a detention authority that is designed for the group of people you actually want to detain?”

That question is sure to spark more controversy in the months to come.

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