Deborah Pearlstein

Deborah Pearlstein is a visiting research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. From 2003-2007, she was director of the U.S. Law and Security Program at Human Rights First.

Recent Articles

Roberts' Road

When the Senate rejected President Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court close to 20 years ago, a half-dozen books and numerous articles were written marking the nomination as a watershed in Supreme Court politics. Opponents of the nominee mobilized more aggressively, more successfully, and in a more organized way than had been previously done. The 58-to-42 vote was the largest margin by which the Senate had ever rejected a Supreme Court nominee. Following the Senate vote, Bork was quoted in The New York Times as noting, “There is now a full and permanent record by which the future may judge not only me but the proper nature of a confirmation proceeding.” Indeed, the fight over the Bork nomination set the standard for effective opposition advocacy -- a mixed blessing, depending on one's view of the nominee. But it also taught judicial nominees and those shepherding nominees through the Senate gauntlet a lesson: When it comes to answering Congress'...

Ammo for the Enemy

Addressing an audience of academic and business leaders in New York City earlier this month, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized the importance of risk-management principles in designing an effective approach to minimizing the threat of terrorism. “In business,” Chertoff said, “[y]ou weigh the risks of a particular action, you conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and you factor these into your considerations.” Where the costs of any security strategy -- like investing major federal resources in disaster preparedness for the residents of Rochester, Minnesota -- outweigh its plausible benefits, we are better off without it. If there is any lesson to be taken from the riots in Afghanistan sparked by reports of Koran desecration by U.S. soldiers (and the growing anger at America that the latest protests in the Muslim world reflect), it is the ongoing failure of U.S. security policy to incorporate this basic principle. Coercive interrogation methods based on...

Who's Afraid of International Law?

The Supreme Court's growing docket of cases involving international law seems to have left both Congress and the White House with a bad case of the shakes. Between Senator John Cornyn's proposed resolution last month stating that judicial consideration of foreign judgments “threatens the sovereignty of the United States,” and the Justice Department's scramble before the Supreme Court last week to avoid judicial enforcement of treaty obligations Congress willingly ratified, one would think the U.S. justice system is facing imminent attack by marauding members of the French supreme court. Before Congress sends troops in to purge Justice Anthony Kennedy's chambers of references to all laws étrangères -- and before the administration backs away from compliance with another multilateral treaty -- it is worth asking: What is “foreign” about the Court's recent judgments that seems to pose such an existential threat? For while Congress and the president might reasonably balk at being bound by...

Laws of Gravity

Almost a year since the first photos of torture from Abu Ghraib appeared, there remains a steady stream of new documents out of Afghanistan and Iraq revealing an ever-larger number of detainees brutalized in U.S. custody. One might have imagined that evidence of such a systemic problem in U.S. detention and interrogation operations (roundly condemned by most on Capitol Hill) would lead lawmakers to seek more effective enforcement mechanisms and stiffer penalties for violators. Yet on the contrary, policy-makers' interest in embracing and regulating “highly coercive” methods of interrogation (based on a realpolitik acceptance that harsh coercion is happening anyway) is emerging as an early agenda item in the first new Congress since Abu Ghraib. There is a striking disconnect between the universal condemnation of the torture and other cruel treatment we have seen in practice and the steady interest in pursuing coercive interrogation as a matter of policy. But policy-makers interested in...

Rights Without a Country

While the Bush administration contemplates long-term options for detaining the 500 or so foreign nationals still held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, it might do well to take a look at the Supreme Court's technical decision last week involving the government's power to detain in the United States those non-citizens whose home countries won't accept their return. As a matter of statutory interpretation involving the complexities of federal immigration law, the decision is unremarkable. But as a harbinger of what the White House is likely to encounter as it continues to assert the power to indefinitely detain foreign nationals caught up in the “war on terrorism,” the Court's jurisprudence is becoming impressively clear. The Court's latest opinion on indefinite detention comes in the case of Daniel Benitez -- a refugee who arrived in the United States from Cuba as part of the Mariel boatlift almost 25 years ago and who has been legally without a country ever since. Paroled into...

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