Losing the War on Terror

Legal expert David Cole explains why rolling back our rights won't defeat terrorists

| September 27, 2007

David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Nation's legal affairs correspondent, has been an outspoken critic and chronicler of the Bush administration's constitutional high jinks during the 'War on Terror.' In his latest book, Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror (New Press, 2007), Cole and coauthor Jules Lobel scrutinize the public record to show how Bush's tough-guy tactics have not only unjustly constricted our civil liberties but have failed to catch the 'evil doers.' Utne.com caught up with Cole after a lecture at the Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis.

Why are we less free?

The Bush administration has adopted a particular approach to fighting terrorism, something it calls the 'preventive paradigm.' This paradigm seeks to employ the most coercive measures that a state has against people, not because of what they have done but because of what they might do. When you interrogate people based on the sense that we might be able to prevent a terrorist attack in the future, or go to war against a country that didn't attack us -- Iraq -- on a preventive theory, you put tremendous pressure on the basic principles of this country.

The Bush administration has taken the position that it can lock up anyone anywhere in the world -- including US citizens -- without any hearing whatsoever, without any access to a lawyer, simply because the president considers him to be, in his words, 'a bad guy.' We've sacrificed the principles of the First Amendment's right of association in the name of punishing people for their association with quote/unquote terrorist groups -- groups that have been labeled terrorist. We've seen sacrifices in commitments to due process because of the Bush administration's notion that the government can coercively interrogate people to try to get information out of them.

You argue that we've been made less safe by this.

The stated justification for these measures is indeed to keep up more safe, but our argument in this book -- based on the six years of evidence we've had to assess how the administration has done -- is that we are in fact less safe as a result of these measures. We show that many of these tactics have captured few if any terrorists; have disrupted few if any terrorist plots; and have had tremendous negative consequences, both in terms of immunizing people who are bad from being brought to justice (because the information on them was tainted because it was gotten by torturing somebody) and in terms of prompting a tremendous amount of resentment against the United States.
So what's the alternative?

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