The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Constitutional Law Expert David Cole Addresses Whether President Obama Can End The War on Terror

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For the celebration of Law Day, an annual national day set aside to celebrate the rule of law, the Rockefeller Center was fortunate enough to have a speaker well-versed in some of the most important legal issues today. David Cole, the Honorary George J. Mitchell Professor in Law and Public Policy at the Georgetown University Law Center, is an expert on constitutional law, national security, and criminal justice. In his public lecture, “Can President Obama End the War on Terror?” he addressed many of the most pertinent issues in national security today – ranging from the war on terror and surveillance to Guantanamo Bay and drones.

David Cole began his lecture by discussing the war on terror. He noted to the audience that the Obama administration has made it clear that democracy demands an end to the perpetual state of war, but what would it take to end the war with Al Qaeda? And what would be the consequences of going into peacetime footing? In particular, David Cole focused on the consequences of shifting from wartime to a peacetime footing in these four areas: detention, drones, surveillance and accountability.

“We will have to eventually release those detained individuals if we can’t find a reason to make them stay, and some may still continue to pose a threat to us. But my response to that is, so what? There are already so many people who pose a threat to us and we don't detain them,” Cole remarked.

In regards to the drone program, Cole noted that its controversy is attributed to its secrecy, American exceptionalism, and the feasibility to kill.

“An open agreement of these lines would be untenable,” Cole said.

And what about surveillance? With the recent WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden scandals, where does the NSA stand? David Cole says that federal surveillance authorities exist in both wartime and peacetime, so pulling out of the war with Al Qaeda would not likely change the existing NSA program. The end of the war will not solve the problem of an overaggressive NSA from a legal standpoint, but will help from a practical and political standpoint, because the government has more incentive to use the NSA during wartime.

The main question still remains unanswered at this time, and that is will the president end the war on Al Qaeda, and when? Cole believes that President Obama has the ability and authority to end the war, but Cole cannot answer for sure whether or not he will do so. Cole, however, is one of many who believe that it is conceivable to put an end to the war with Al Qaeda, and in fact it is more advantageous to put ourselves on a non-battleground footing. Whether or not this will actually happen in the near future, we will have to see.

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The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences