New Defense Secretary Should Prioritize Human Rights Issues Key to National Security

Washington, D.C.– As President Obama chooses a nominee to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Human Rights First urges him to select a candidate who can oversee the completion of several legacy issues for the administration, including closing Guantanamo and ending the war against al Qaeda. President Obama announced Secretary Hagel’s departure from the Pentagon earlier today.

“The next secretary of defense will face a full agenda from day one and will play a pivotal role in defining the legacy of this administration,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “With only two years left in the Obama Administration, it is increasingly critical that the person overseeing the Pentagon is able to bring the president’s priorities across the finish line.” As President Obama finalizes his choice for secretary of defense, he should consider candidates’ qualifications in the following issue areas:

  • Guantanamo:  President Obama has committed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay by the end of his second term. There have been 13 detainees released from Guantanamo this year—including six in the past week—bringing the population down to 142. Of those, 73 have been cleared by U.S. intelligence and security agencies. The secretary of defense plays an important role in carrying out the president’s executive order to close the detention facility. The next defense secretary should also refrain from bringing any further military commissions cases and recommend that the system be shut down and that detainees who have committed crimes be prosecuted in civilian courts. For more information, see Human Rights First’s roadmap Guantanamo: A Comprehensive Exit Strategy.
  • Targeted Killing: Despite warnings from former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair and former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center Robert Grenier that the drone program may be doing more to create enemies than eliminate them, the program has persisted and remains shrouded in secrecy. Human Rights First notes that confidence in the U.S. targeted killing program depends on full clarity about its governing laws and the measures taken to ensure that civilian casualties are minimized. The release of a summary of the Presidential Policy Guidance on targeted killing operations and redacted versions of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinions concerning the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaqi are important steps forward, however, a significant amount of information remains classified. The new secretary of defense should commit to ensuring that the U.S. targeted killing program is consistent with the rule of law by increasing transparency and oversight of the program, including releasing the full Presidential Policy Guidance and the nine other OLC opinions on the legality of targeted killings. For more information, see Human Rights First’s blueprint How to Ensure that the U.S. Drone Program Does Not Undermine Human Rights.
  • Authorization for Use of Military Force Against ISIS: Congressional leaders have stated their intention to legislate an AUMF that targets the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A growing consensus among legal experts who have served in both the Bush and Obama Administrations calls for any new AUMF to be narrowly tailored to the group(s) targeted, the scope of operations (including a sunset and geographical limitations), and the objectives sought to be achieved, as well as providing for increased transparency and compliance with international law. The new secretary of defense should work with Congress to ensure that an ISIS-specific AUMF will provide the president with the authorities he needs to conduct the planned military campaign against ISIS and should support the limitations on force advocated for by the group of legal experts. For more information, see “Principles to Guide Congressional Authorization of the Continued Use of Force Against ISIL.”
  • Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Al Qaeda: The new secretary should work with Congress to sunset, rather than expand, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaida and the Taliban. The war-making authorities for that mission have been contorted over the past decade to cover a different set of threats beyond the al Qaeda that attacked the United States on 9/11, without congressional oversight and without due regard to the costs of using force in response to all of these threats. The 9/11-era al Qaeda has been diminished to “a mere shadow of its former self,” and counterterrorism professionals continue to support a group of non-military policies that are essential to national security but remain under-emphasized and under-resourced. Failure to bring an end to the 2001 AUMF risks  the United States falling into what President Obama has called “a perpetual war [that] will prove self-defeating.” As with ISIS, the administration and Congress should confront specific threats with narrowly tailored responses.
  • Counterterrorism Partnerships: The president has made clear that counterterrorism strategy will be built around close operational partnerships with governments in countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.  In forging such partnerships, the United States must ensure that the governments with which it partners in combatting terrorism are not undermining this goal by violating human rights and denying their people basic rights and freedoms. President Obama’s nominee to be new secretary of defense must be committed to the principle that advancing respect for human rights and the rule of law is an essential element in counterterrorism strategy, and must be an integral part of U.S. national security policy.

Published on November 25, 2014


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