Keep America Safe and Free
Ten years after 9/11, our nation still faces the challenge of remaining both safe and free. Our choice is not, as some would have it, between safety and freedom. Just the opposite is true.
As President Obama recognized in a 2009 speech, "our values have been our best national security asset—in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval." Yet, our government’s policies and practices during the past decade have too often betrayed our values and undermined our security.
Ten years ago, we could not have imagined our country would engage in systematic policies of torture and targeted killing, extraordinary rendition and warrantless wiretaps, military commissions and indefinite detention, political surveillance and religious discrimination. Not only were these policies completely at odds with our values, but by engaging in them, we strained relations with our allies, handed a propaganda tool to our enemies, undermined the trust of communities whose cooperation is essential in the fight against terrorism, and diverted scarce law enforcement resources. Some of these policies have been stopped. Torture and extraordinary rendition are no longer officially condoned. But most other policies — indefinite detention, targeted killing, trial by military commissions, warrantless surveillance, and racial profiling — remain a core element of our national security strategy today.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, President Bush addressed the nation. "Our country is strong," he stated. "Terrorist acts can shake the foundation of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America." Those few words precisely captured the nature and scope of the challenge our country faced. The tragedy of the lives lost that horrific day was seared deeply into our hearts and our consciousness. The attacks had shown that even the world's most powerful nation could not be completely secure from the threat of terrorism. But President Bush delivered a message of resilience and resolve: America's "foundation" — its core values and founding principles — was strong enough to withstand this threat, just as it had withstood many others. To allow that foundation to be undermined would be to deliver to terrorists the victory they were incapable of achieving on their own.
Close Guantánamo: Well over a decade has passed since the first prisoner arrived in Guantánamo Bay, making it the longest-standing war prison in U.S. history. Almost 800 men have passed through Guantánamo’s cells. Today, more than 150 men remain. Fashioned as an “island outside the law” where terrorism suspects could be detained without process and interrogated without restraint, Guantánamo has been a catastrophic failure on every front. It is long past time for this shameful episode in American history to be brought to a close.
Accountability for Torture: The ACLU is committed to restoring the rule of law. We will fight for the disclosure of the torture files that are still secret. We will advocate for the victims of the Bush administration's unlawful policies. We will press Congress to appoint a select committee that can investigate the roots of the torture program and recommend legislative changes to ensure that the abuses of the last eight years are not repeated. And we will advocate for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to examine issues of criminal responsibility.
Honor Those Who Said "No" to Torture (2011 resource): Top officials of the Bush Administration approved the torture and abuse of prisoners, but brave men and women throughout the military and the government challenged the policies, called out abuses, and worked to end the use of coerced evidence. These courageous individuals should be honored for their integrity and their commitment to real American values. So far, though, our official history has honored only those who approved torture, not those who rejected it.
Establishing a New Normal (2010 resource): In the 18 months since the issuance of those executive orders, the administration’s record on issues related to civil liberties and national security has been, at best, mixed. Indeed, on a range of issues including accountability for torture, detention of terrorism suspects, and use of lethal force against civilians, there is a very real danger that the Obama administration will enshrine permanently within the law policies and practices that were widely considered extreme and unlawful during the Bush administration. There is a real danger, in other words, that the Obama administration will preside over the creation of a "new normal."