Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of the Center on Law and Security, has given her take in more than one media outlet recently on the issues surrounding terrorism detainees. In “Detention Nation,” published in the May/June 2009 issue of the National Interest, she looks at the past, present, and possible future of the U.S. approach to detaining terrorism suspects, raising the question of how much Barack Obama’s new administration will be able to alter the situation it inherited from the George W. Bush years. “The world, and the nation, await a new direction,” she writes. In a separate op-ed for the Washington Post, Greenberg critiques Obama's reversal of his earlier decision to release photographs depicting detainee abuse.
As Obama entered office, Greenberg writes in the National Interest piece, he was faced with a group of existing prisoners whose exact numbers have never been made public. The vague legal status of detainees causes further problems, she says; at Guantánamo, even prisoners who have been approved for release remain there because of uncertain diplomatic ties with their home countries. This limbo, Greenberg argues, diminishes the nation’s standing: “The United States can no longer be taken at its word, and its judicial process no longer stands as a model of liberal freedoms.” And the relaxed restrictions on torture, she says, have had not only negative diplomatic consequences, but also deleterious effects on the country’s ability to try terrorism cases in domestic courts.
Greenberg does note signs she considers positive since Obama became president: Apart from the decision to close Guantánamo, Obama has also brought the Department of Justice into a direct partnership with the Pentagon on detention matters, expunged the term “enemy combatant,” and indicated his intent to reduce detainee numbers. On the other hand, she says, the new administration has continued to claim the state-secrets privilege in cases of extraordinary rendition, denied habeas corpus to U.S. prisoners in Afghanistan, and released a report concluding that conditions at Guantánamo do not violate the Geneva Conventions.
In general, Greenberg says, Obama has demonstrated care and thought in the first months of his presidency as he rethinks the policies currently in place, but it remains to be seen whether bolder actions will occur. “Like it or not," she writes, "the Bush administration’s war on terror succeeded in moving the conversation—and the policy—about detention to a point from which it cannot be easily or fully pulled back.... Much will hinge on whether Obama sees himself as at the beginning of the process—in terms of directives as well as rhetoric—rather than in the middle of it.”
Greenberg's Washington Post piece suggests that Obama's change of mind regarding the detainee abuse photos might be an attempt to reduce pressure to investigate Bush administration officials for possibly illegal acts related to interrogation and detention polices. Greenberg argues for a public airing of the truth behind the government's actions in order to deal fully with what went wrong. "If Obama does nothing else as president," Greenberg writes, "he needs to stand up for the integrity of factual truth and clear thinking rather than the convenience of government-led obfuscation."