Wittes lectures on security policies

Posted by Jean-Ann Kubler

At 6:30 p.m. March 28 in Davis Auditorium, Brookings Institute senior fellow Benjamin Wittes presented a lecture titled "Detention, Rendition, Drones and Commissions: Continuity and Change in National Security Policy Between the Obama and Bush Administrations." About 80 people attended the event, which many described as "unexpectedly witty."

Wittes' academic focuses include the Supreme Court, judicial nominations and confirmations, and the legalities of the War on Terror. Wittes has published several works about legal issues in the War on Terror. Wittes is also the co-author of the popular legal blog "Lawfare."

The lecture began with an introduction by Professor Scott Mulligan, who teaches the government department course "Terrorism in the Law." Wittes spoke to Professor Mulligan's class, as well as Professor Kate Graney's "International Human Rights" class prior to the lecture.

Wittes said there are four lenses through which the national security policies of the Obama and Bush administrations can be compared: substantive powers claimed, the articulated basis for those powers, how the power is functionally used and how the administrations publicly discuss the powers they claim.

Depending on the lens used to evaluate the administrations' policies they could appear very similar or very different, Wittes said. Through the lenses of the powers claimed and how they are used, the Obama and Bush administrations appear to have strikingly similar policies.

However, the administrations articulate the basis for their powers and publicly discuss them in very different ways, according to Wittes.

Wittes said that despite vague promises of change during Obama's campaign, the current president's national security policies are, for the most part, continuations of Bush policies framed with different rhetoric.

As an example, Wittes said that many people point to the dramatic decline in Guantanamo Bay detainees as a success of the Obama administration even though the decline began during Bush's presidency.

"We really overstate the personalization of these tactics to individual presidents. The policies change with the conflict. The presidents are just along for the ride," Wittes said.

Wittes asked the audience for questions after about 30 minutes of lecturing. During the question and answer period, one audience member asked how citizens can be sure that the Obama administration is not using more covert aggressive tactics in the Middle East.

"We know because sometimes things blow up," Wittes said.

Audience members said they were unsure of how to feel about Wittes' somewhat humorous discussion of serious policy issues. "His intelligence combined with his witty delivery of issues of drone warfare and coercive interrogation techniques kind of gave the lecture an interesting vibe, and I came out of it feeling a little odd," Julia Grigel '11 said.

Despite some audience members' reservation about the lecture, others felt it was necessary that national security issues be discussed on campus.

"It's really important that someone of Benjamin Wittes' prominence is on campus, discussing issues that matter to current political discussions," Ethan Flum '13 said.

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