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John Brennan's Remarks on the Obama Administration's Policy on Combating Terrorism

On September 16, 2011, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, told conferees in a keynote address at the Harvard Law School-Brookings conference (part of the new Harvard Law School-Brookings Project on Law and Security) that the United States must not let down its guard in fighting terrorist organizations on a broad front.

In “Strengthening our Security by Adhering to our Values and Laws,” John Brennan states:

In the face of this ongoing and evolving threat, the Obama Administration has worked to establish a counterterrorism framework that has been effective in enhancing the security of our nation. This framework is guided by several core principles.

First, our highest priority is—and always will be — the safety and security of the American people. As President Obama has said, we have no greater responsibility as a government.

Second, we will use every lawful tool and authority at our disposal. No single agency or department has sole responsibility for this fight because no single department or agency possesses all the capabilities needed for this fight.

Third, we are pragmatic, not rigid or ideological — making decisions not based on preconceived notions about which action seems “stronger,” but based on what will actually enhance the security of this country and the safety of the American people. We address each threat and each circumstance in a way that best serves our national security interests, which includes building partnerships with countries around the world.

Fourth—and the principle that guides all our actions, foreign and domestic—we will uphold the core values that define us as Americans, and that includes adhering to the rule of law. And when I say “all our actions,” that includes covert actions, which we undertake under the authorities provided to us by Congress. President Obama has directed that all our actions—even when conducted out of public view—remain consistent with our laws and values.

For when we uphold the rule of law, governments around the globe are more likely to provide us with intelligence we need to disrupt ongoing plots, they’re more likely to join us in taking swift and decisive action against terrorists, and they’re more likely to turn over suspected terrorists who are plotting to attack us, along with the evidence needed to prosecute them.

When we uphold the rule of law, our counterterrorism tools are more likely to withstand the scrutiny of our courts, our allies, and the American people. And when we uphold the rule of law it provides a powerful alternative to the twisted worldview offered by al-Qa’ida. Where terrorists offer injustice, disorder and destruction, the United States and its allies stand for freedom, fairness, equality, hope, and opportunity.

In short, we must not cut corners by setting aside our values and flouting our laws, treating them like luxuries we cannot afford. Indeed, President Obama has made it clear—we must reject the false choice between our values and our security. We are constantly working to optimize both. Over the past two and a half years, we have put in place an approach—both here at home and abroad—that will enable this Administration and its successors, in cooperation with key partners overseas, to deal with the threat from al-Qa’ida, its affiliates, and its adherents in a forceful, effective and lasting way.

In keeping with our guiding principles, the President’s approach has been pragmatic—neither a wholesale overhaul nor a wholesale retention of past practices. Where the methods and tactics of the previous administration have proven effective and enhanced our security, we have maintained them. Where they did not, we have taken concrete steps to get us back on course.

Unfortunately, much of the debate around our counterterrorism policies has tended to obscure the extraordinary progress of the past few years. So with the time I have left, I want to touch on a few specific topics that illustrate how our adherence to the rule of law advances our national security.

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  • Benjamin Wittes is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution.He co-founded and is the editor-in-chief of the Lawfare blog, which is devoted to sober and serious discussion of "Hard National Security Choices," and is a member of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on National Security and Law. He focuses on legal issues surrounding the war on terrorism and national security, judicial nominations and confirmations, and the federal courts.

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