Better, but not nearly good enough.
That's the message many were sending after President Obama's speech at the National Defense University in Washington, DC on Thursday.
Human and civil rights groups generally responded to Obama's foreign policy speech by saying that though they welcomed the president's decision to directly address long-ignored issues—including extrajudicial killings, drone attacks, the permanent war footing of the US military, and the ongoing crisis at the Guantanamo Bay prison—there remained enormous problems with many of his declarations and formulations surrounding these controversial policies.
From the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR):
The president’s stated reengagement on Guantanamo is welcome, but long overdue. However, unless he takes immediate steps to resume transfers and ultimately close the prison, his administration will not escape the “harsh judgment” of history he anticipated in his speech. We welcome his decision to lift the ban on transfers to Yemen, which has trapped more than half of the men at the prison. However, we are disappointed by the president’s comment that cleared men will only be released “to the greatest extent possible.” While more than 100 men continue to starve themselves in a principled protest for their freedom, the president’s equivocation is troubling. After eleven years of detention without charge or trial, all of the men President Obama does not intend to give fair trials should be released and reunited with their families. Anything short of that threatens to worsen a potentially deadly crisis unfolding a Guantanamo.
Regarding the U.S.’s use of lethal force against suspects of terrorism, though President Obama suggested a return to normal at some point in the future, the essence of his speech was to reassert the legally-flawed and dangerous premise of the targeted killing program —namely, that the United States continues to be engaged in a global war with Al Qaeda and undefined “associated forces.” Whether or not the United States can use lethal force under the laws of war is not a matter of policy preference—it is a matter of law and facts. The policy standard he outlined for the targeting of individuals, requiring imminence and feasibility of capture, while narrower than prior asserted standards, also raised questions about how those standards would be interpreted. Prior Justice Department interpretations, for example, that imminence does not require clear evidence of a specific act in the immediate future, do not engender confidence. The president was certainly correct when he stated that we need to think about the world we are creating and leaving behind. But codifying this program, despite its “refinements,” sets a dangerous precedent for future administrations and other countries.
ACLU president Anthony D. Romero released the following statement:
President Obama is right to say that we cannot be on a war footing forever, but the time to take our country off the global warpath and fully restore the rule of law is now, not at some indeterminate future point. Four years into his presidency, President Obama has finally taken the first steps to jumpstart his administration's effort to make good on early campaign promises to close Guantánamo and recognized the human cost of failing to act. These are encouraging and noteworthy actions.
To the extent the speech signals an end to signature strikes, recognizes the need for congressional oversight, and restricts the use of drones to threats against the American people, the developments on targeted killings are promising. Yet the president still claims broad authority to carry out targeted killings far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency. We continue to disagree fundamentally with the idea that due process requirements can be satisfied without any form of judicial oversight by regular federal courts.
We are particularly gratified that President Obama embraced our recommendations to use his authority to allow prompt transfer and release of Guantánamo detainees who pose no national security threat and that have been cleared by the military and intelligence agencies. We also applaud his appointment of a high level official to supervise the process for closing Guantánamo once and for all.
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But there are other problems that must still be addressed. The unconstitutional military commissions must be shuttered, not brought to the United States. While the president expressed appropriate concern about indefinite detention, he offered no clear plan for ending this unconstitutional policy for those who have not been tried or cleared for release.
President Obama's efforts to repair his legacy in the eyes of future historians will require that he continue to double down if he is to fully restore this nation's standing at home and abroad. The ACLU realizes that Congress has thrown significant barriers in closing Guantánamo. But in some areas Congress has been more progressive, having recently demanded legal memoranda that claim to authorize the illegal killing program. The ACLU stands ready to work with, and if necessary do battle with, those elements of government that impede our nation's obligations to honor the rule of law and to protect our values while safeguarding our security.
And Amnesty International responded with this:
President Obama was right to reaffirm the need to close Guantanamo, address the need for greater transparency, and acknowledge the troubling issues surrounding his killer drone program. Now it's time for him to take immediate and further action and get the job done.
Transfers can and must resume today, and all detainees must either be fairly tried in federal court or released. President Obama was right not to endorse the concept of indefinite detention, but his proposal to restart unfair military commissions in the mainland U.S. should be rejected as both unlawful and unnecessary.
What's needed on drones is not a "kill court," but critically, much more transparency regarding the legal basis for the drones program, including the release of the newly approved presidential guidance as well as independent investigations of alleged extrajudicial executions and remedy for victims.
There's no need to wait to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. The Obama administration should immediately end reliance on the flawed "global war" legal theory at the heart of indefinite detention, military commissions and the killing of terror suspects and civilians alike.
Congress must stop hindering reform. Elected officials should repeal the remaining legislative obstacles to closing the detention facility and make the Senate report on CIA torture public.
President Obama is right that the country is at a crossroads. It's time for the path not chosen over a decade ago. It's time for human rights.