Major Policy Statements

In his first term, President Obama and several high officials gave major speeches intending to outline the legal and policy framework for the administration’s counterterrorism policies.  Links to these are below; the excerpts are interesting, but are not intended as summaries of the arguments made in the speeches.

"First, whenever feasible, we will try those who have violated American criminal laws in federal courts -- courts provided for by the United States Constitution.  Some have derided our federal courts as incapable of handling the trials of terrorists.  They are wrong.  Our courts and our juries, our citizens, are tough enough to convict terrorists.  The record makes that clear."

"Some have asked what legal basis we have for continuing to detain those held on Guantanamo and at Bagram. But as a matter of both international and domestic law, the legal framework is well-established. As a matter of international law, our detention operations rest on three legal foundations. First, we continue to fight a war of self-defense against an enemy that attacked us on September 11, 2001, and before, and that continues to undertake armed attacks against the United States. Second, in Afghanistan, we work as partners with a consenting host government. And third, the United Nations Security Council has, through a series of successive resolutions, authorized the use of “all necessary measures” by the NATO countries constituting the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to fulfill their mandate in Afghanistan. As a nation at war, we must comply with the laws of war, but detention of enemy belligerents to prevent them from returning to hostilities is a well-recognized feature of the conduct of armed conflict, as the drafters of Common Article 3 and Additional Protocol II recognized and as our own Supreme Court recognized in Hamdiv. Rumsfeld."

"Terrorists arrested inside the United States will, as always, be processed exclusively through our criminal justice system.  As they should be. The alternative would be inconsistent with our values and our adherence to the rule of law.  Our military does not patrol our streets or enforce our laws in this country.  Nor should it.  Every single suspected terrorist taken into custody on American soil—before and after the September 11th attacks—has first been taken into custody by law enforcement.  Our criminal justice system provides all of the authority and flexibility we need to effectively combat terrorist threats within our borders.  In the aftermath of 9/11, two individuals taken into custody by law enforcement were later transferred to military custody.  And after extensive litigation and significant cost, both were transferred back to law enforcement custody and prosecuted."

"When we succeed in capturing suspected terrorists who pose a threat to the American people, our other critical national security objective is to maintain a viable authority to keep those individuals behind bars. The strong preference of this Administration is to accomplish that through prosecution, either in an Article III court or a reformed military commission.  Our decisions on which system to use in a given case must be guided by the factual and legal complexities of each case, and relative strengths and weaknesses of each system.  Otherwise, terrorists could be set free, intelligence lost, and lives put at risk. 

That said, it is the firm position of the Obama Administration that suspected terrorists arrested inside the United States will—in keeping with long-standing tradition—be processed through our Article III courts.  As they should be.  Our military does not patrol our streets or enforce our laws—nor should it."

"Particularly when we attempt to extend the reach of the military on to U.S. soil, the courts resist, consistent with our core values and our American heritage – reflected, no less, in places such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Third Amendment, and in the 1878 federal criminal statute, still on the books today, which prohibits willfully using the military as a posse comitatus unless expressly authorized by Congress or the Constitution."

"Let me be clear:   an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles."