It’s now been over three weeks since an American citizen who is being held by the United States in military detention as an “enemy combatant” after allegedly fighting on behalf of ISIS turned himself in to SDF forces in Syria.
We still know shockingly little about the detainee (including his name, the circumstances of his capture, whether the government plans to keep him in military detention, etc.). Even the latest “news” in this case—that the Red Cross was notified of his capture and was planning to arrange a visit— is almost a week old.
One would think that the plight of an American citizen, the first to be subjected to military detention as an enemy combatant by his own government in almost a decade, would be a topic of interest to members of Congress.
And Tuesday was the perfect opportunity: Secretary of Defense Mattis and General Dunford (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) spent somewhere north of six hours on Capitol Hill testifying before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on the U.S. political and security strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia.
But unless I’m missing something in the preliminary transcripts of the two hearings, in all that time, the civilian and uniformed heads of the US military were asked exactly zero questions about this case, or what it may augur for U.S. detention policy going forward.
It continues to be possible, as Bobby Chesney and I discussed on last week’s episode of the National Security Law Podcast , that there is a good reason for the (otherwise stunning) radio silence from the press, Congress, and the Executive Branch, i.e. , that the detainee is cooperating, and so the lack of information about his situation is simply a function of a broader, understandable effort to maximize his intelligence value.
But it would be easy enough for the government to say that when asked, and to use that excuse to refuse to answer questions that, frankly, ought to be asked from every possible corner, without giving up the ghost.
And it is just as possible that, amidst an indescribably busy (and tragic) news cycle, the incommunicado detention of an unidentified American citizen half a world away just doesn’t make the cut as a topic of interest.
If that’s the case, that’s a pretty alarming reflection on the state of the world today—and on how far we’ve come with respect to a topic that was (rightly) a huge source of controversy during the Bush administration.
I’d say “stay tuned,” but at this rate, I’m not sure for what…
Steve Vladeck is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. He is a professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law.