In a city full of them, Harold Koh is Washington’s biggest hypocrite.
As the dean of Yale Law School, Koh was the most prominent critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies, deriding them as “executive muscle-flexing.” The former President, Koh said, was the “torturer-in-chief.” In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, he referred to the war on terror as “legally undeclared” and questioned the administration’s right to kill terrorists on the battlefield. “What factual showing will demonstrate that they had warlike intentions against us and who sees that evidence before any action is taken?” he asked.
In 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, Koh was awarded the job of State Department legal adviser. Since that time, he has defended a war waged in Libya without explicit congressional authorization, drone strikes targeting suspected terrorists and the extrajudicial assassination of an American citizen who had become a leading Al Qaeda ideologist.
None of these, however, can be considered the greatest of Koh’s manifold hypocrisies. That honor stems from a 2010 speech in which he triumphantly declared that the Obama administration “unequivocally guarantee(s) humane treatment for all individuals in U.S. custody as a result of armed conflict” (emphasis original).
One wonders, then, what Koh would make of Eli Lake’s blockbuster Daily Beast story last week. Reporting from Somalia, Lake found a secret prison holding alleged terrorists captured by, or with the assistance of, the United States.
“Overcrowded, underfunded, and reeking of urine, the Bosaso Central Prison could make even the most dedicated insurgent regret ever getting into the terrorism business,” Lake wrote. The prison’s warden told Lake that nearly 400 men are being held in a facility designed for 300. There today exist an untold number of such prisons where terrorism suspects, dispensed with by the United States, live in substandard, dehumanizing conditions.
The proliferation of such hellish prisons — which make Guantanamo Bay look like Trump Tower — is a function of two, seemingly contradictory impulses of the Obama administration: a near-religious conviction in its own moral immaculateness and the imperative to wage an aggressive fight against Al Qaeda.
After President Obama entered office, he drastically increased the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the use of drone strikes in counterterrorism operations. Simultaneously, however, Obama closed the American-operated “black sites” in Europe, where terrorist suspects were sent to and interrogated. And while he has yet to fulfill his promise of shuttering the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, it does not take new prisoners.
So what do you do when you have a war to fight, but are too morally pure to detain the enemy? You either send them to Third World hellholes like Bosaso or you incinerate them with Hellfire missiles.
The Obama administration considers waterboarding to be cruel “torture.” So what does it do instead? It dispatches remote-control drones to rain hell on suspected terrorists. Eliminating the alleged terrorist this way removes the pesky question of what to do with an enemy combatant captured alive. It also obviates the difficult task of intelligence-gathering; a dead terrorist can’t talk.
Of course, occasionally we hit the wrong person. Or an entire family. Or, perhaps, a village. Reporting is scattershot because the drone program is covert. There is not even an opportunity for the suspected terrorist to surrender and volunteer information; he literally has no idea what hit him.
And despite the advanced state of drone technology, it’s still impossible to know if every strike is a success. No matter. As The New York Times described the administration’s rationale for drone strikes, “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”
Can you follow the logic? Putting a known terrorist mastermind in a box with a “harmless insect,” a method approved by a Bush administration assistant attorney general for use in the interrogation of Al Qaeda’s Abu Zubaydah, is “torture.” Killing people who “are probably up to no good” is what Nobel Peace Prize winners do.
Having pledged to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has nonetheless shown himself to be committed to the fight against America’s enemies, as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden amply demonstrated. Yet sending terrorism suspects to prisons like the one Lake visited in Somalia is not only inhumane in a way that Guantanamo Bay — where inmates receive three square meals a day, play soccer and watch movies — never was. It is also counterproductive in the effort to win Muslim hearts and minds, something that the election of Obama was allegedly meant to accomplish.
None of this is to say that liberals were right in 2008, when they alleged that Bush administration officials were war criminals, and wrong in 2012, as a Democratic President carries out policies just as, if not more, aggressive than those of his predecessor. The war on terror presents responsible leaders with hard choices, and Obama has made the right decision on many of them. But before they defend the next drone strike, perhaps Koh and the rest of the President’s supporters could apologize to the men and women they slandered.