“In many ways, what the Obama administration is committed to is out-Rumsfelding Rumsfeld,” said Aziz Rana, speaking at the Law School on March 25. Rana, Associate Professor of Law, was one of four participants in “The Next Four Years in Counterterrorism Policy,” a panel organized by Chantal Thomas, Professor of Law and Director of the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa. Joining him were the Law School’s Jens Ohlin, Sarah Kreps of Cornell’s Department of Government, and Wadie Said of the University of South Carolina.
Speaking first, Rana compared the current administration’s security policy with its predecessor’s, noting its cultivation of a global detention system that sub-contracts much of the work to allies. “Even if what we have now is much more proceduralized,” he said, “that doesn’t mean it’s going to be significantly less coercive than Bush-era practices that were ad-hoc and discretionary.”
Focusing on domestic detention and prosecution, Said addressed the federal prosecution of terror suspects, as well as the use of informants, which has trickled down to the local level. “When challenged, senior law enforcement officials — starting from Attorney General Holder to FBI Director Mueller to NYPD Chief Raymond Kelly — say, ‘look, this is an invaluable tactic that we must use, and we’re going to stick to it even at the costs of marginalizing, alienating, and criminalizing a whole community,’” he remarked, adding, “Those are my words at the end.”
Another prominent topic was drone policy. Ohlin examined the “privilege of combatancy,” which licenses combatants to kill enemy soldiers, and questioned whether and how drones or their operators could qualify. He also discussed the recent proposal of a “drone court,” to oversee strikes. Such a body, he argued, could create a “system of perverse incentives” for the administration, deterring it from targeting killings of prominent individuals and toward “signature strikes” aimed at groups believed to be militants but without confirmed identities.
Kreps, meanwhile, examined drone policy as a tool for shielding the public from the costs of war and thus removing incentives to demand peace. “When wars can be fought without young men and women going into battle to kill and be killed, governments don’t have to offer justifications for what they’re doing,” she observed. “This insulation from the costs and consequences will mean that leaders won’t have to obtain popular permission to go to war.”
“If anything,” said Thomas at the end of the discussion, “the drones are announcing to us that we’ve officially broken whatever boundary might have existed previously between law and war, between peacetime and wartime.”