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The Post-9/11 Civil-Liberties Debate The Post-9/11 Civil-Liberties Debate

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The Post-9/11 Civil-Liberties Debate


A firefighter makes a rubbing of a victim's name as friends and relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center gather for a ceremony marking the 11th anniversary of the attacks in New York on Tuesday.   (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is an opportunity to take stock of the controversial U.S. counterterrorism policies that ensued over the following 11 years. Some debates, such as the one over government surveillance of U.S. citizens, have quieted, says the Council on Foreign Relations' Matthew Waxman.

But other issues, such as building trust in Muslim-American communities, remain thorny. With an eye toward the U.S. presidential election, Waxman says he doesn't expect "radical changes to counterterrorism policy under a possible Romney administration," although Guantanamo might be one area where the two candidates diverge. Meanwhile, a "big looming issue," he says, is how the legal justification for the U.S. war on al-Qaida--the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force--will evolve as the country gets further away from 9/11.


How has the Obama administration done in striking a balance between security and privacy over the past four years? What have been the major accomplishments and criticisms?

The most intense debates about counterterrorism and privacy since 9/11 have focused on the collection of information on citizens, such as National Security Agency surveillance of communications and FBI investigation powers under the Patriot Act. Those debates haven't gone away, with opposition coming from both the Far Left and the Far Right. But they have quieted significantly in recent years, and Congress has essentially been reauthorizing those activities with bipartisan support.

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One area of continuing difficulty is rebuilding and sustaining trust among some communities, including Muslim-American communities that see themselves as inappropriately targeted for surveillance. This trust is ultimately important to effective counterterrorism programs as well as law-enforcement efforts and other public-policy interests.

One of President Obama's big 2008 campaign promises was to close the prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, but this has been stymied by Congress. Do you foresee any movement on this issue with a new administration and new Congress in 2013?

The Obama administration underestimated the difficulties, especially political ones, of closing Guantanamo. In some respects, that effort has moved backwards, in that although the number of detainees there has gone down, there are now more legislative restrictions on transferring detainees and more strident opposition to bringing captured terrorism suspects into the United States for prosecution. 

It is extremely unlikely that a second-term Obama administration and new Congress will spend the political capital necessary to close Guantanamo. One possible scenario down the road, though, is that if the courts begin to rule against the government in its continuing efforts to hold detainees there, this could reshape the politics and force action to find alternatives.


And if Romney takes office, should we expect a tip in the balance more toward security? 

Despite whatever rhetoric we hear on these issues during the campaigns, I don't expect radical changes to counterterrorism policies under a possible Romney administration--just as we didn't see such radical changes between where Bush left off and the Obama administration has settled.

One possible change may be with respect to bringing additional detainees to Guantanamo. Whereas Obama has closed off that option, Romney might reopen it. If so, this wouldn't involve large numbers of detainees, but would mean further institutionalizing Guantanamo as a long-term policy rather than framing it as a legacy problem.

One issue the next administration will need to deal with is cybersecurity, which has recently gotten bogged down on questions about industry regulation but also could have privacy dimensions to it. Also, while the fiercest debates about privacy and security after 9/11 have concerned the government's collection of personal information, a future president and Congress will need to wrestle more seriously with questions about the government's authority to compile and use information that has already been collected.

President Obama's Speech at 9/11 Observance Ceremony -- VIDEO

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