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Children Murdered, Homes Foreclosed: How the Government Makes 'Mistakes' With Impunity

If life-altering mistakes don’t warrant accountability, maybe that's because nothing can.

A protest against drone attacks in Pakistan.
Photo Credit: Asianet-Pakistan /

Anyone who’s been at the mercy of the DMV, the IRS or a health insurance company knows that bureaucracies make mistakes. Most people are accustomed to bureaucracies making mistakes. And even presidential administrations and U.S. Armed Forces make mistakes. 

Yet when considering U.S. national security policies, raising the question of mistakes that cost lives is chalked up as a minor issue: “We have to expect collateral damage in wars/drones/bombs/armed conflict.”

If we know that organizations make mistakes, then it’s not that hard to see that organizations without external oversight and accountability will be empowered to make mistakes with impunity. 

Not rectifying mistakes, not allowing oversight, refusing to be accountable to an external judicial body is considered by many an abuse of power. But abuse can only be claimed when a state promises to be accountable. If the state claims that it can’t be accountable, can’t be reviewed for mistakes, can’t rectify mistakes because such practices would be dangerous (the reason isn’t really important here), then at most levels, it’s hard to name the state’s attitude as abuse. 

Moreover, as journalist Margaret Kimberley points out, the Obama administration has claimed the right to kill American citizens without charge or trial. That’s not an abuse of power. It’s a complete usurpation of power. There is no space by which to claim the administration should have acted differently by its own lights. 

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this, not the abuse of, but the monopoly of power? 

In 2005, Rahina Ibrahim was “ cuffed, detained, and denied a flight” to Hawaii to deliver a conference paper about sustainable housing. She was allowed to return home to Malaysia, but because her name was on a U.S. government no-fly list, Ibrahim’s visa was subsequently revoked; she was prevented from returning to the U.S., thus effectively ending her doctoral studies at Stanford.  She eventually finished her dissertation in Malaysia, and sued the U.S. government to have her name removed from the no-fly list. But the courts initially ruled that she had no legal standing to sue the U.S. to change its policies because she is a non-citizen, and the U.S.’s efforts to fight terrorism could not be challenged by a foreign national.

Ibrahim persisted, and at least in the most recent round, won. Despite the U.S.’s best efforts to the contrary, Ibrahim is the first to successfully force the U.S. government to remove her name from the list. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup’s ruling points out that the U.S. government had erred: An FBI agent confessed to having filled out the no-fly list form for Rahina Ibrahim in exactly the opposite way as he should have. Alsup had suspected as early as December 2009 that Ibrahim had been the victim of a “ monumental” government error. 

Murtaza Hussain, in an excellent assessment, points out that Attorney General Eric Holder abused the state-secrets privilege in the Ibrahim case. In an affidavit from April 2013, Holder invoked the state secrets privilege as the reason that the Department of Justice could not turn over the records regarding why her name was put on the no-fly list. Referring to the 2009 State Secrets Policy established under a young Obama administration, Holder promised that he would not claim the state-secrets privilege to hide wrongdoing, incompetence, inefficiency or embarrassment. Nor would he invoke it to “prevent or delay the release of information the release of which would not reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.” 

Clearly, Holder lied. The reason we know that Holder lied is because of what was revealed in Judge Alsup’s decision. In this specific instance, we have clear evidence that the Obama administration abused its power — on the view that the abuse of power is constituted when a government has promised to behave within certain procedural bounds and legal limits, but has stepped beyond them. 

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