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

Objection Overruled

While the administration has hurried to interpret George W. Bush's re-election as a ratification of his political approach to the war on terrorism, the president's legal approach to that effort has so far suffered a rather thorough repudiation in the courts and in the court of public opinion. With the decision on November 8 by a federal court in Washington, D.C., ordering a halt to military commission trials under way at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the administration endured another defeat in its attempt to assert sweeping powers to detain, interrogate, and prosecute individuals caught up in the name of anti-terrorism. The question for the new administration -- and especially its attorney-general nominee, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales -- is whether it is prepared to govern within the limits of the law established by those defeats. Gonzales and the administration began articulating a radical new legal theory shortly after September 11, which they set forth in public statements,...

Rewarding Bad Behavior

With most of the nation's eyes on a tight presidential race heading into its final days, it is hardly surprising that the growing allegations of torture and abuse of detainees carried out by U.S. authorities have largely fallen off the political radar screen. Neither campaign has much interest in saying anything that could be seen as negative about our troops, the vast majority of whom have indeed performed admirably. Likewise, the last topic any member of Congress facing re-election wants to discuss is how to be more “sensitive” to the laws against torture in the “war on terrorism.” Still, it is one thing for the political parties in these final weeks to remain silent on how to address the damage done by the now many hundreds of allegations of torture and abuse -- and dozens of deaths -- of those in U.S. custody from Iraq to Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is quite another to actively embrace these practices as a matter of law. Yet, not even six months removed from the...

Criminal Justice and the Erosion of Rights

While human-rights observers have rightly focused on terrorism-related developments in the U.S. criminal-justice system, the trend toward limited procedural protections for defendants and a shrinking judicial role well predates the September 11 attacks. Indeed, security has been a central justification for rights-limiting changes in the criminal-justice system for decades. Much like the war on terrorism today, the dominant feature of criminal-justice policy in the 1980s was the vigorously marketed war on drugs. Once declared in 1982, that war quickly became the federal government's primary domestic-security focus. The Justice Department shifted huge numbers of personnel previously occupied with white-collar criminals to anti-drug enforcement in the inner cities. As the Drug Enforcement Administration's New York City office chief later wrote of the mid-'80s, it “was the hottest combat reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam war.” Out of the drug war grew a series of...

Rights in an Insecure World

Almost as soon as the planes crashed into the twin towers, scholars, pundits, and politicians began asserting that our most important challenge as a democracy now is to reassess the balance between liberty and security. As Harvard human-rights scholar Michael Ignatieff wrote in The Financial Times on September 12, “As America awakens to the reality of being at war -- and permanently so -- with an enemy that has as yet no face and no name, it must ask itself what balance it should keep between liberty and security in the battle with terrorism.” Long before anyone had a clear idea of what went wrong -- much less how to make sure it never happened again -- public debate began with the assumption that something about the current “balance” was partially to blame for the attacks' success. As the attorney general testified in December 2001, “al-Qaeda terrorists are told how to use America's freedom as a weapon against us.” In embracing the USA PATRIOT Act just weeks after the attacks,...

A Thousand Words

When the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on April 28 in the cases of detained U.S. citizens Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hamdi, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Deputy Solicitor General Paul Clement how the Court could be sure that government interrogators were not torturing the detainees. Clement was indignant. You just have to “trust the executive to make the kind of quintessential military judgments that are involved in things like that,” he told the Court. Later that evening, CBS News released the first photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib. We may never know whether the photos of Abu Ghraib -- and the release of the Justice Department memos justifying torture that followed -- swayed the Court's decisions in the first three cases grown up out of our struggles against terrorism. Neither the multiple opinions in the Padilla and Hamdi cases, nor the Court's separate decision recognizing U.S. court jurisdiction over the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, mentioned in so many words...

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