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The Real Test for Obama on Indefinite Detention

Here’s another point I should have made in my piece earlier today: Just because President Obama’s Justice Department has been asserting a remarkably broad, Bush-like view of his detention authority pursuant to the laws of war in the Guantanamo detainees’ habeas corpus cases, that doesn’t mean the president has to stick with that definition in the future. And those civil liberties and national security lawyers I mentioned who’d support an executive order on detention are hoping fervently that he won’t: specifically, they want any such order explicitly to narrow the scope of the government’s authority so that it can’t just pick up suspected terrorists anywhere in the world and imprison them indefinitely in the name of the global “war on terror.”

As David Remes, executive director of Appeal for Justice who represents about a dozen Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo, explained to me earlier today, “If you look at the fine print of the Obama refined definition, you’ll see it’s limited to this litigation,” referring to the habeas cases. In the meantime, Obama has set up a team of people — a detainee policy task force — to study and consider and decide what U.S. detention policy should be going forward. “So it could be different than what DOJ has argued in the habeas cases,” says Remes.

But will it be?

National security and civil liberties experts like Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, and Ken Gude at the Center for American Progress are among the many lawyers urging a far narrower interpretation that would be limited to the right to detain fighters picked up on the battlefield.

Of course, there’s the question of how to define the battlefield. But Martin and Gude, in the memo they sent to the detainee policy task force, point out one way that seems to make perfect sense: rely on the military’s definition of the scope of its combat operations.

“As two retired JAG officers have explained, when the military is operating with rules of engagement pursuant to the law of war, such circumstance defines the ‘battlefield’ and the extent of combatant detention authority,” they write, citing a paper by Geoffrey S. Corn and Eric Talbot Jensen.

“There’s a clear line,” says Martin. “When the military is authorized to shoot to kill, they have detention authority. But otherwise you have to try them.”

Remes points out that you still have the problem of defining who’s a fighter, an issue which comes up in all the habeas cases. To some extent that will have to rest with the military, and then with whatever proceedings it affords detainees to challenge their detention. (If they’re in the United States or at Guantanamo Bay, of course, detainees also have the right to challenge their detention in federal court.)

These limits still may not satisfy some civil and human rights experts, as Spencer points out. They make a strong argument that the laws of war apply to conflicts between states, not conflicts between a state and a terrorist organization. As Gabor Rona, international legal director of Human Rights First, put it to me recently, the Geneva Conventions “presumed that where it’s a non-state armed group you’re fighting against it will be domestic law that applies, because those people are all criminals. Unlike in an international armed conflict, the privilege of belligerency doesn’t apply.”

There may never be a meeting of the minds between the Rona and Martin, or what I’ll call the strict civil libertarians and the pragmatists. But given that the federal courts so far have accepted that the United States is engaged in a “war” of some sort with certain terrorist groups and seem willing to define at least some of those fighters as “enemy combatants” (or whatever the Obama administration is calling them now), it’s hard to imagine that Obama — not one to give up authority easily — will completely walk away from that paradigm in the future.

What seems the more pressing question now is whether the administration will continue to push for the extremely broad view of its war powers that it’s advocated in Guantanamo habeas cases — the same definition that allowed the Bush administration to snatch and indefinitely detain without charge anyone suspected of supporting al-Qaeda or the Taliban anywhere in the world — or if they’ll be willing to restrict their powers to a more logical and limited reading of international law.

Alternatively, will advocates for a whole new system of preventive detention — such as Neal Katyal, now Deputy Solicitor General; Robert Chesney, a law professor at Wake Forest University spending the summer on the Detainee Policy Task Force; Jack Goldsmith at Harvard; and Benjamin Wittes at Brookings — persuade the administration that it needs Congress to pass new legislation to move beyond the laws of war, so that it does have authority to indefinitely detain without charge terror suspects seized anywhere in the world?

I know that’s not what the strict civil libertarians are advocating. But I wonder if, by refusing to recognize the applicability of the laws of war at all, they’re actually (though unintentionally) encouraging a far more radical solution.

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