Despite strong statements on the Constitution and national identity, President Obama did little to assuage the concerns of human rights and civil liberties groups when he laid out his national security doctrine at the National Archives today. Their primary concern is that Obama has solidified a precedent of preventive detentions without trial; one went so far as to say he betrayed the Constitution.
"We welcome President Obama's stated commitment to the Constitution, the rule of law and the unequivocal rejection of torture. But unlike the president, we believe that continuing with the failed military commissions and creating a new system of indefinite detention without charge is inconsistent with the values that he expressed so eloquently at the National Archives today," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, in a press release sent out after the speech.
Romero has previously blasted the administration for its decision to use tribunals--a decision he says was made without the proper input. The ACLU and others have also criticized Obama's opposition to the release of detainee-abuse photos and the Department of Justice's invocation of the state secrets privilege--both of which Obama sought to explain in his speech today.
"He wraps himself in the Constitution and then, in our view, proceeds to undermine it," Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) President Michael Ratner said. Obama spoke this morning in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives, where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are displayed.
"If his legacy is preventive detention and military commissions, that's a real step backwards," Ratner said. "It would be a legacy for the future that I think will cause untold damage to constitutional rights in this country...it's very sad to me."
Obama presented military commissions--to be used in some detainee cases, but not all--as "an appropriate venue for trying detainees for violations of the laws of war" that "have a history in the United States dating back to George Washington and the Revolutionary War."
Ratner disagrees. "That's a-historical. It's not the use they traditionally had--it's modifying the rules of evidence, and there's only one reason they're using it: it's easier to convict people," Ratner said. Two of Ratner's big problems with tribunals are that they admit hearsay evidence coerced testimony--though not through harsh or degrading interrogation methods, as Obama pointed out today.
That concern about preventive detentions is shared by Human Rights Watch, another group that has urged the Obama administration on detentions, tribunals, and detainee rights.
The group appreciated Obama's support for human rights and the judicial system for detainees, it said in a press release sent out after the speech. But Obama "undermines that commitment by proposing a system of prolonged detention without trial for some terrorism suspects," the group said.
"President Obama is absolutely right to emphasize that ignoring our values undermines rather than enhances America's security," Executive Director Kenneth Roth said. "But allowing detention without trial creates a dangerous loophole in our justice system that mimics the Bush administration's abusive approach to fighting terrorism.
"It's not good enough to prosecute a few low-level officials while ruling out a truth commission to investigate senior officials who planned and authorized the policy of abuse and torture."
In his speech, Obama said the government will prosecute Guantanamo detainees in U.S. courts if they have broken U.S. criminal laws. Other detainees will face military commissions, and others will be transferred to other countries, if they can be done so safely, Obama said.