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

Caught on Tape

Revelations that the CIA destroyed tapes of interrogations are further evidence of the degree to which this administration has fostered a culture of self-justifying raw power. It's time for us to call for leadership that promotes professionalism.

Gen. Michael Hayden, head of the CIA, stood by the destruction of the interrogation tapes, saying in a statement to CIA staff, "What matters here is that it was done in line with the law."(AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File)
When the New York Times reported last Thursday that the CIA had destroyed videotapes capturing the apparent torture of terrorist suspects during interrogations by CIA operatives, I found myself reading the first sentence of the article repeatedly, trying to put a finger on what troubled me most. The Central Intelligence Agency in 2005 destroyed at least two videotapes documenting the interrogation of two Qaeda operatives in the agency’s custody, a step it took in the midst of Congressional and legal scrutiny about its secret detention program, according to current and former government officials. Was it the images the tapes brought to mind, of the kinds of humiliating treatment some of those interrogations have reportedly involved? Was it the reminder of the extant "secret detention program" -- an extralegal detention regime that the administration insists to this day it can continue to pursue? Was it the "at least" caveat, signaling that we may be (again) only at the beginning...

Mukasey and the Doctrine of Detention

He called Guantanamo a "black eye" but wouldn't call for its closure. So what is the attorney general nominee's plan for detaining terrorist suspects?

Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey is sworn in on Capitol Hill on Wednesday prior to testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on his nomination. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The Senate Judiciary Committee had no shortage of questions this week when it took up the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey for the next attorney general. From restoring faith in the idea of legal impartiality of Justice Department professionals, to overcoming the demoralizing tenure of Alberto Gonzales, to reasserting the department's role in monitoring the executive's intelligence-collection activities -- the next attorney general has his work cut out for him. Understanding Mukasey's views on policies past is as least as important as pinning down his plans for detaining terrorist suspects going forward. When the subject came up on Wednesday, Mukasey agreed that Guantanamo is a "black eye." He conceded that there remain "ongoing problems" with aspects of current U.S. detention policy. And he committed to undertake a review of existing Justice Department legal opinions on detention powers, to determine whether he agrees with their interpretation. Congress should eagerly await the...

The Real Gonzales Problem

Gonzales' worst fault -- the inability to separate politics from law -- is one that may well plague the administration beyond his resignation.

When Alberto Gonzales steps down as U.S. Attorney General next month, he will leave behind a Justice Department tainted by scandal, depleted of career professionals, and backpedaling furiously from a host of extralegal counterterrorism policies so internationally deplored that one may fairly ask whether they have done more to aid the cause of radical Islamic terrorism than to prevent it. Gonzales, of course, cannot shoulder all of the responsibility for this state of affairs. He has been a poster child for the more systemic failing of this administration -- its inability to recognize a difference in this country between politics and law. Unfortunately, if Gonzales' tenure as attorney general is any indication, that larger defect seems likely to survive his departure. It may seem quaint in today's post- Bush-vs.-Gore world to insist upon the notion that the legal system and its officers should remain at least somewhat independent from politics. Such separation has always been uneasy in...

Is Justice Possible After Torture?

The U.S. decision five years ago to torture detainees has infected a generation of terrorism cases where it might have once been possible to do justice -- but may not be anymore.

While Washington was preoccupied last week with expanding the executive branch's warrantless surveillance powers, Jane Mayer's latest article (featured in the Aug. 13 issue of The New Yorker ) offered a chilling reminder of how the current administration has exercised its intelligence-gathering powers so far. Members of Congress who will take up such questions again this fall would be wise to add Mayer's piece to their summer reading list. For among the article’s many disturbing descriptions of the treatment of detainees held in secret CIA prisons since 2002 lay this news: The Pakistani man (a man Mayer describes as a “terrorist who had a history of staging kidnappings”) convicted of the brutal slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl has new grounds for appeal. The grounds? According to recent statements by U.S. officials, another high-level terrorist, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), had himself confessed to the Pearl killing under interrogation at one of...

The "Lawfare" Scare

Late last month, The Wall Street Journal featured another entry in a series of op-eds from the conservative legal team of David Rivkin and Lee Casey railing against those who would challenge the administration's policies of detention, interrogation, and trial in the post-9/11 world. This time, Mssrs. Rivkin and Casey accuse lawyers who have opposed such administration policies in court of engaging in "lawfare," a term they define as "the growing use of international law claims, usually factually or legally meritless, as a tool of war." The effect of this lawfare effort, were it successful, would be to make it exceptionally difficult -- if not impossible -- for a law-abiding state to wage war in anything like the traditional manner, bringing the full weight of the national armed forces to bear against an enemy, without prompting charges of war crimes and efforts to intimidate individual officials with prosecutions on ersatz "war crimes" theories. In fact, the criminalization of...