Friday, May 21, 2010

Human rights, civil liberties and the balance with national security

That was the title of the first morning session as the final day (bummer!) of The Washington Center's Top Secret program unfolded.

If you are passionate about human rights, this session was for you.

The presenters included Todd Hinnen, a deputy assistant attorney general with the Dept. of Justice (I could not find a bio for him on the DOJ Website); Ben Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute; and Tom Parker, a policy director at Amnesty International (and I couldn't find his bio on the Amnesty International site).

The panel challenged the group to consider what it means to engage in a lengthy and unconventional war and not sacrifice human rights.

Mr. Parker reaffirmed one of the important themes of this week -- terrorism wins if it allows us to be fearful of it. "Get a grip," Mr. Parker added. "Al-Qaeda only poses a threat to our way of life if we allow it." (He's spot on here, by the way.)

He also questioned how much progress this country has made under the Obama administration in balancing the fight on terror and human rights. He asked why the White House continues to hold some suspected terrorists indefinitely, a hallmark of the Bush administration that in the minds of many people around the world contributed to the damaged U.S. image.

"The fruit of the poison tree is poisonous," Mr. Parker added.

Mr. Hinnen suggested the problem of human rights and national security has become more complex because of the spate of home-grown terrorists -- American citizens, often acting alone (though with some form of training from known terrorist organizations). These are people who are to be provided their legal rights, and yet we know the public furor that flows when that issue is raised.

Mr. Parker noted that the problem also is heightened because terrorist organizations use social media/new technology to spread their message. Those technologies also must be used in the fight against the terrorists, he added.

On the other hand, Mr. Wittes said there should be a simple answer -- abide by the values that define your society. In that circumstance, the Bush administration would not have done what it did, and the Obama administration would not continue some of the practices.

So, why does simplicity not work? It is in part because there is no certainty that the people you are dealing with hold the same values you do. In other words, what amount of risk of seeing a freed terrorist (suspected or otherwise) turning around and attacking again?

(One side note: a presenter earlier this week, Mr. Peter Singer, has written an intriguing report about the use of robots and other non-human technology in fighting wars. Read it! There are important human rights issues in the use of such technology.)

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