Thursday, August 8, 2013

The embassies should have stayed open

Pity Edward Snowden. He was accused of revealing valuable information allowing terrorist groups to learn that the United States was eavesdropping on their communications. Today, with U.S. embassies in the region closed because electronic “chatter” suggested an attack was imminent, terrorists know this by listening to American officials.

The Obama administration has pursued leaks aggressively, except when these advance its agenda. The news that the U.S. discovered that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had ordered the organization’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out an unspecified military operation is useful to President Barack Obama. It allows him to defend American surveillance programs, after Congress recently failed by a narrow margin to defund the National Security Agency’s program to collect metadata and other information domestically.

That is not to say that the latest threat was contrived to serve such a purpose. Rather, the closure of several embassies was portrayed as an effort to stray on the side of caution, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have praised the move.

Perhaps they were right, but the American reaction must have especially pleased Zawahiri and his acolytes. Nineteen embassies in the Arab world were closed for a week, American and British citizens left Yemen hurriedly, and the United States looked as if it had lost its nerve. And all Zawahiri had to do was to pick up the phone and say a few words.

Not surprisingly the Yemenis were unhappy. They decried the evacuations as a step that “serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.” Jihadist websites, in contrast, were delighted with the havoc the apparent threat had created.

The dangers to the United States and other Western countries are real and should be taken seriously. However, when episodes like the latest embassy closures occur, it’s difficult not to feel that the responses are out of proportion with reality. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. rightly concluded that the best way to combat terrorism was to show that Americans could go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Since that time American actions have proven the contrary, so that those who claim that Osama bin Laden won may be right.

The U.S. has not conducted its “war on terror” in an ideal way. The NSA’s surveillance programs are a good example of how the siren song of absolute security has allowed the U.S. government to dramatically widen its authority to enter into the lives of Americans, with no regard for privacy. Even if legislation to defund the surveillance programs was defeated, there will be other ways to bring the programs back into line with what Congress originally intended in the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

In defending the surveillance programs, Obama declared it was necessary to balance privacy with national security. He’s right, except for one thing: the balance has invariably tilted in favor of national security, as Americans and non-Americans have faced ever more intrusive government snooping into their personal communications, financial affairs, purchases, Internet habits and anything else the government deems to be of relevance to public safety.

Perhaps the most egregious facet of the “war on terror” was the Bush administration’s creation of a legal twilight zone in which torture was interpreted as something acceptable, while prisoners caught in Afghanistan and elsewhere were denied the protection of the Geneva Conventions. The justification of torture, sordidly redefined as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” greatly damaged George W. Bush’s legacy, as did the administration’s adoption of an illegal “extraordinary rendition” program that allowed prisoners to be sent to countries that practiced torture in order to be interrogated.

As for the legal status of prisoners, a case could be made early on that Al-Qaeda and Taliban combatants did not qualify as prisoners of war under Common Article 3 of the conventions, even if the Supreme Court later ruled that they did. However, the administration’s case was much weaker under Protocol 1, which the U.S. never ratified. The result was that prisoners found themselves in a legal no-man’s land, labeled “enemy combatants” to be held until the end of the war on terror.

The only problem is that the war on terror is open-ended. The prisoners at Guantanamo prison are still caught up in a legal void: they are covered neither by the Geneva Conventions nor are they under the jurisdiction of American law. What to do with them is a headache that Obama has yet to resolve, which has delayed his plans to close Guantanamo.

Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a laudable effort to overthrow an incalculably cruel regime. However, how difficult it was for the president, and for those, such as myself, who supported the war, to convince others of this when the administration was bending the law to allow the very behavior it was supposed to fight. For what we saw at Abu Ghraib was only what we had earlier seen at other U.S. prisons.

Fouad Ajami, a defender of the Iraq war, wrote this at the time: “We ought to give the Iraqis the best thing we can do now, reeling as we are under the impact of Abu Ghraib – give them the example of our courts and the transparency of our public life. What we should not be doing is to seek absolution in other Arab lands.”

Ajami was right in arguing that America’s strength resides in its legal system and its transparency, not in the denial of due process and secrecy. Nor will overreaction and panic defeat Al-Qaeda. The U.S. embassies in the region should have tightened security and remained open. Steadfastness and principle should yet mean something to a nation that has frequently struggled not to abandon both.

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