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  • Fareed Khan / Associated Press file, 2012

    Pakistani boys chant slogans during a June rally in Karachi to protest U.S. drone strikes in tribal areas. President Barack Obama has expanded the strikes, which kill civilians as well as terrorists and fuel anti-American feelings.

  • Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: The price of our never-ending war on terror isn't just U.S. casualties

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 8:52 am

Sometimes it can seem like the war on terror is never going to end.

I'm reminded with every report of U.S. soldiers killed, but also with the realization that 11 years and counting after 9/11, many of the most troubling tactics are still with us.

They stayed through seven years of George W. Bush, and are now carrying over into the second term of President Barack Obama. If anything, they're even more entrenched after a flurry of developments that you may have missed during the "fiscal cliff" drama:

• On Sunday, Obama quietly signed into law a bill extending for five more years the government's power to monitor the phone calls, emails and Internet activity of suspected foreign terrorists without a warrant – even if the communications of U.S. citizens are swept up and the surveillance takes place here.

• On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported on the latest case on Obama's watch of "extraordinary rendition" – detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists in other countries without due process. Three European men with Somali roots were arrested in Africa in August, questioned for months and flown to the United States to eventually stand trial.

• And on Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration can legally refuse to disclose information about its targeted killings of suspected terrorists, including three U.S. citizens hit by a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen.

Yes, there are still al-Qaida cells and other terrorists bent on killing Americans, so we have to keep our guard up.

Still, I don't believe it's soft on terrorism or somehow unpatriotic to ask: How much longer are these extraordinary measures – which infringe on our rights and skirt international law – necessary to protect us?

While some secrecy is needed in such matters of national security, a big part of the problem is that Americans know far too little of what is being done in our name.

For instance, we don't know how many renditions have taken place under Obama. In September 2010, a federal appeals court in San Francisco accepted the administration's claim that it would expose "state secrets" and dismissed a lawsuit from five former rendition prisoners.

We don't really know how the administration decides who is put on the target list for drone strikes. Obama has substantially expanded the use of the unmanned drones, authorizing strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen as well as Iraq and Afghanistan. An unknown number of civilians have lost their lives.

We haven't a clue how many Americans get their emails read or phones calls listened to during surveillance of terrorism suspects. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was renewed without any amendments to make it more transparent or accountable.

All this secrecy, fiercely guarded by the White House, makes it extremely difficult to have an informed debate.

The judge who ruled in favor of the administration on the drone strike documents got to the heart of our dilemma. U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon conceded the "Catch-22" of rules that let the executive branch declare its actions are legal – even ones "that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret."

"The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me," McMahon wrote. The case, she rightly said, raised constitutional questions about presidential power and "whether we are indeed a nation of laws, not of men."

To his credit, Obama banned torture immediately after taking office in 2009. He has tried to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and sought to try terrorism suspects in civilian courts, but has been stymied by Congress, most recently in the defense budget bill he signed this week.

But to his critics, Obama has not done nearly enough to draw a line between Bush's presidency and his. Instead of living up to his 2008 campaign rhetoric, he's repeating many of Bush's mistakes.

Personally, this issue is what disappoints and perplexes me most about Obama.

It makes me wonder whether the president, who taught constitutional law, has misgivings about the lengths to which he's going to fight the war on terror. How much does the political danger of looking weak as commander in chief play into his decisions? For someone who cares deeply about his legacy, does he lose any sleep over the liberties he's taking with our freedoms?

As Obama, himself, has said about torture and Guantánamo, these injustices only weaken our standing in the world and strengthen our enemies. Doesn't he realize that it's the same with rendition, spying on Americans and targeted killings?

It surprises me how little dissent there is. The loudest criticism comes from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which is viewed with suspicion by some.

If more of us don't raise our voices, these laws and policies could become more permanent than emergency measures.

That would be a high price for winning this war.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Foon Rhee, Associate editor



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