US Military Attorney Compares Rationale for “War on Terror” to Nazi Ideology

21.2.12

Last month, when I visited the US to campaign for the closure of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, I was so busy flying from city to city and from event to event that I did not have time to take in — and in some cases to cross-post — articles of interest that were published at the time.

In the hope of keeping alive some of that spirit of awareness about the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo that flickered briefly to life around the anniversary, I’m planning to cross-post some of these articles, and I’m beginning with an article written for the National Law Journal by the military defense attorney Todd Pierce, someone I regard as both a friend and a colleague. I have met up with Todd on my visits to Washington D.C. in November 2009, in January 2011 and last month, and we have also communicated by email, regarding his involvement in the military commissions at Guantánamo, first under George W. Bush, and now under Barack Obama.

Specifically, Todd was involved in the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, who received a life sentence in November 2008 for producing a video for al-Qaeda, after a one-sided trial in which he refused to mount a defense, and he was one of the lawyers involved in appealing the ruling, arguing that it was an assault on the First Amendment, which, if left unchecked, could lead to all manner of foreigners — including, for example, investigative journalists like me — also being targeted.

Al-Bahlul lost that case, and languishes still in Guantánamo, but Todd continues to work as part of the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel for the military commissions, and for the 10th anniversary, he expressed his particular concern that the actions of the lawyers — including Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and Robert Delahunty — who twisted the law out of all shape to justify the abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration in its “war on terror” are still being defended by two law professors, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School and Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School, whose books argue that “the threat of terrorism constitutes a state of emergency necessitating the suspension of our Constitution,” and, in doing so, draw on the ideas of Carl Schmitt, described by Todd as “the Nazi ‘Crown Jurist’ of the 1930s.”

I hope you enjoy the article, which certainly led to some fascinating conversations around the time of the anniversary. Personally, I think it is important to point out these connections, as, even though the supporters of unfettered executive power are no longer in the White House, the legacy of the Bush administration lives on, and, in some ways — in accepting arbitrary detention, for example, and in blocking all efforts to hold senior Bush administration officials and lawyers responsible for their crimes — remains fundamentally unchallenged.

The Guantánamo facility at 10: an assault on our constitutional government
By Todd E. Pierce, National Law Journal, January 10, 2012

The 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a detention facility and the diversion of terrorism prosecutions into a new military commission system is now upon us. Consequently, I thought I would take this opportunity to briefly explain why I, an Army Reserve Judge Advocate General officer with more than 30 years of active and reserve military service, would volunteer as defense counsel for prisoners being held there.

I might add that I consider myself to be a conservative. In the United States of America, that means to conserve the legal order that this nation was founded upon, the Constitution. In fact, as a member of the military, I took an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I did not take an oath of allegiance to the “leader,” or to the “state,” as required in some other nations. Thus, it came as something of a shock to me when Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and Robert Delahunty began issuing legal opinions that the Geneva Conventions, a treaty incorporated into our law, were quaint and did not apply, or that the president could, at his or her sole discretion, suspend them.

I will admit a particular sensitivity to the enforcement of the Geneva Conventions, as my father, along with thousands of other American and Philippine prisoners of war, survived the Bataan Death March. This was despite the best efforts of soldiers who set aside the Geneva Convention of 1929 because of their oath of allegiance to the Japanese emperor. Following that war, my father’s former captors and their legal advisers were put on trial and convicted of war crimes, including waterboarding and punishing prisoners without fair trials, as required under the 1929 Geneva Convention. This treaty was replaced by the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 due to the mistreatment of prisoners like my father.

Back in 2001 and 2002, when these legal opinions were being issued, astute critics immediately recognized that these opinions were regurgitated leftovers of President Richard Nixon’s belief that if the president did something, it could not be illegal — the dictator’s prerogative. But this crude anti-American notion had been refined into the “unitary executive theory” [PDF]. Vice President Richard Cheney seemed to take credit for it. But more astute commentators noted that these ideas were actually legal theories expounded by Carl Schmitt, the Nazi “Crown Jurist” of the 1930s. But that seemed a little extreme, or at least bad manners, to point out.

Once the unitary-executive theory began to gain credibility, other advocates of this form of government came out of the shadows, perhaps from “the dark side.” One was Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield in The Wall Street Journal in 2007, who opined about the benefits of “one man rule.” But it remained to two law professors, dedicated to the study of arcane legal texts, Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School and Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School, to openly resurrect Schmitt’s authoritarian legal ideology. Or, as they put it, “political theorists interested in emergency powers, and some academic lawyers as well, are much taken with Schmitt; nearly every discussion of emergencies pores over the canonical texts yet again.”

In fairness to Vermeule and Posner, leaving them to pore over the Nazi’s canonical texts, it should be remembered that Schmitt was not a founder of the Nazi movement. Schmitt only joined the Nazi party when it triumphed over its rival elements in the German military establishment. Schmitt had been legal adviser to those rivals, particularly General Kurt von Schleicher. But what should equally be remembered is that this military faction was seeking to impose its own brand of militaristic dictatorship on Germany, along with an expansionistic foreign policy. These German generals aspired to the form of governance most recently practiced by the dictator Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Schmitt’s writings consistently were an apologia for dictatorship and centralized power, whether under military dictatorship of the German High Command or under the Nazis, having further developed his ideas from his book, Die Diktatur. These ideas culminated in 1934, when he justified the murders following the “Night of the Long Knives” as the “highest form of administrative law.” Most odiously, he legitimated the authority of Hitler afterward with a paean translated in English as “The Leader Defends the Law.”

In Terror in the Balance, Posner and Vermeule argued that the threat of terrorism constitutes a state of emergency necessitating the suspension of our Constitution. Consequently, “Constitutional rights should be relaxed so that the executive can move forcefully against the threat. If dissent weakens resolve, then dissent should be curtailed. If domestic security is at risk, then intrusive searches should be tolerated.” Posner and Vermeule followed this in 2010 with The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic. Cribbed from Schmitt’s Legality and Legitimacy, it seeks to legitimize the administrative state of the sort Schmitt worked to create. Any concern with this centralization of power in our system is dismissed as “tyrannophobia.” Evidently, a mental disorder that our founders were afflicted with. As in Schmitt’s “dual state,” they seek to move us toward a constitutional breakdown through the creation of an administrative state under the exclusive control of the executive, “the Extraordinary Lawgiver” in Schmitt’s terminology. Or as Posner and Vermeule ask and answer: “What comes after the Madisonian regime of liberal legalism and the separation of powers? Our answer is a new political order in which government is centered on the executive.”

Why does all of this matter? In part, because constitutions and constitutional ideas matter. As evident in Yoo and Delahunty’s legal memos asserting unitary executive authority, the legal theory underpinning Guantánamo and the military commissions were an assault upon the structure of our form of constitutional government; lawfare. It was not the inevitable conclusion required by the Sept. 11 attacks, but the exploitation of a tragedy to import a foreign legal ideology, a legal bacillus, into our legal system.

But it matters also because on this 10th anniversary, Guantánamo and the military commissions are metastasizing into our whole legal system. As the French war against the anti-colonialist insurgents of Algeria highlighted, the growing disrespect for “legal niceties” would come to be applied in France itself against political adversaries. Could that happen here? Posner and Vermeule suggest that dissent to policy may need to be controlled, that is, free speech curtailed. Putting aside the potential for misuse against political enemies, is that even desirable for national security? Our allowance of dissent led to our withdrawal from the Vietnam War before the collapse of our economy which, with hindsight, few question any more. Contrast that with the Soviet Union’s defeat and total collapse resulting from its war in Afghanistan, purely at the insistence of the Communist leadership.

We have used the vague and overbroad charge of “material support for terrorism” as cause to investigate anti-war groups in Chicago and Minneapolis, predictably chilling speech and dissent. Critics have suggested that recent legislation passed [the National Defense Authorization Act] would now require the military to detain such dissidents. Or what about gun store owners, gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association, all of whom could be accused of having a hand directly or through propaganda in providing firearms downstream to drug cartels in Mexico, alleged to have ties with Mideast terrorist groups? Military detention for them?

We must ask ourselves, because we are passing this nation on to our children and their children: Were the authors of the American Constitution wrong or suffering from a mental disorder (tyrannophobia as described) in believing that blind faith was not sufficient as a bulwark against incompetence, if not tyranny? My father and my uncles, along with the rest of the Greatest Generation, did not think so when they fought against the political ideas of Carl Schmitt in World War II. I think Schmitt’s ideas are still worth fighting against today.

Todd E. Pierce is a major in the U.S. Army and has been assigned to the Office of the Chief Defense Counsel since 2008. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. 

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Josie Setzler wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. I’m sharing this article locally.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Excellent article! All very true it is written.The whole world feels the same way, but when it is understood in the White House?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Josie and Aleksey. And it may be, Aleksey, that the truth will only be understood in the White House when the current structure of politics and power is overthrown — what the revolutionary movements of last year began asking for, from Tahrir Square to Wall Street …

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    On Digg, anglosaxongal wrote:

    It’s true. The Republicans and their church corporations are mimicking Hitler. They are doing things he did that makes me suspect they actually worship his memory. I met a couple of people who admitted they do! Bust them! Still some of the guilty Nazis have death sentences if found alive! They deserve the same.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, anglosaxongal. Good to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Josie Setzler wrote:

    It’s not just in the White House or in the courts or in the congress–it’s in the media and in the universities and in every place where people remain silent about this or accept it or forget everything they ever learned about the constitution or democracy in civics class. All forgotten or abandoned. We are anesthetized but we can wake up as Andy indicates is already happening.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Josie. Great analysis. It reminded me of the importance of citizens keeping an eye on politicians and being prepared to put pressure on them, and not lazily accepting anything that they come up with, and their snake oil salesmen justifications.

  8. Cold Wind says...

    Legally we have become the mirror image of the system of Nazi-like justice that operates in Israel today. There is no mystery in this. 9-11 was an Israeli false flag, executed by the Mossad with help from well positioned dual citizens and Zionists in the US. The Patriot Act and all of its up-grades, the NDAA and recent calls to trash the Constitution are the product and consequence of our malefic alliance with Israel. These bits of treason were made possible by Zionists, Israel Firsters and other traitors. It is Talmudic justice. Get used to it.

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