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November 16, 2017

Defense Authorization Takes Important Steps Toward Oversight & Transparency in Counterterrorism Operations

Washington, D.C.—Human Rights First today applauded a number of measures in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that will enhance national security by strengthening protections for civilians in armed conflict, requiring the administration to report on the legal justification for terrorism policy, and issuing additional visas for wartime allies in Afghanistan. The organization notes, however, that prohibitions on Guantanamo detainee transfers continue to undermine the the U.S. effort to successfully prosecute terrorism suspects in federal courts.

“Oversight and transparency reflect a commitment to the rule of law, human rights norms, and American ideals,” said Human Rights First’s Rita Siemion. “These measures are important commitments that enhance our national security.”

Human Rights First advocated for the following policy changes found in this year’s defense authorization:

  • Civilian casualties reporting: Requires the defense secretary to provide an annual report to the armed services committees on civilian casualties caused by U.S. operations, including the date, location, and type of operation in which civilians were harmed. The provision also requires the Department of Defense to describe the process it uses for investigating civilian deaths and steps taken to mitigate civilian harm, and to take into account credible reporting from nongovernmental organizations and other public  sources when preparing the report. This provision is an important as it ensures increased transparency about civilian harm and the efforts to mitigate that harm, which is essential for meaningful public debate about the lawfulness and effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
  • Counterterrorism policy framework report: Requires the president to submit a report to appropriate congressional committees on the legal and policy frameworks for counterterrorism operations. The report must also include the legal, factual, and policy justifications for any changes made to these frameworks since President Trump took office. Any subsequent changes must be reported to appropriate congressional committees within 30 days of being made. This provision facilitates important congressional oversight of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
  • Visas for Afghan allies: Provides an additional 3,500 visas for the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program for the brave Afghans who risked their lives alongside Americans. In March 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul announced that it had stopped taking SIV interviews altogether. The new visas authorized by Congress were all but gone. Approximately 13,000 Afghan allies and their families are still waiting at some point in the application phase. Keeping faith with Afghan troops is as much a matter of American national morality as it is American national security.

“Congress just sent an important signal that those who risked their lives to protect and defend others should not be left behind,” added Human Rights First’s Jennifer Quigley.

Human Rights First notes, however, that the provisions designed to block detainee transfers out of Guantanamo Bay are out of step with national security:    

  • Guantanamo: Retains the bans on transfers of Guantanamo detainees to certain countries and to the United States for any reason, including for emergency medical treatment and for trial in U.S. federal court. Earlier this month President Trump rightly chose to prosecute New York terrorism attack suspect Sayfullo Saipov in federal court rather than the disastrous Guantanamo military commissions. The military commissions have convicted only eight people and three of those have had their convictions overturned. The 9/11 defendants have been in pretrial hearings for over five years with no trial start date in sight. By contrast, federal courts have successfully prosecuted over 620 people since 9/11. Prohibiting transfers of Guantanamo detainees to the United States robs the U.S. government of this important tool in the fight against terrorism.

For more information or to speak with Siemion or Quigley, contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.