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NU law profs’ questions for Attorney General Holder go unanswered

Attorney General Eric Holder center talks group law students before delivering an address Northwestern University law school Monday. (AP Photo/Brian

Attorney General Eric Holder, center, talks to a group of law students before delivering an address at the Northwestern University law school, Monday. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

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Updated: March 8, 2012 9:49AM

Does what we are in count as “war?”

In Yemen? Is the whole world our “battlefield?”

Attorney General Eric Holder faced a tough audience at Northwestern University’s School of Law Monday as he tried to justify the administration’s killing of Americans terrorism suspects overseas.

Faculty and students were told to submit their questions for Holder in advance. Then an e-mail went out just before his speech that he would not be taking any questions. Law professors — like President Obama used to be — were reduced to asking questions of each other the morning after.

Professor Joseph Margulies has defended six detainees at Guantanamo and freed five of them.

When many of the professors, students and other listeners rose to give Holder a standing ovation before he spoke, Margulies remained seated, saying he wanted to hear what Holder said first.

“I was disappointed. I defy anyone to read that speech and show any differences between Obama and Bush on these issues,” Margulies said. “They both say we are in a war not confined to particular battlefield. ... Both say we can target citizens without judicial oversight and that can happen anywhere in the world,”

Professors Bridget Arimond and Juliet Sorensen, who teach international human rights, were likewise unsatisfied with parts of Holder’s speech.

“I think he didn’t address a lot of the harder questions,” Arimond said. “He went through the various principles that authorize the use of lethal force in armed conflict. These principles are unassailable in armed conflict: You kill the enemy. I don’t think it makes a difference if it’s an American citizen if it’s an armed war.”

But the problem is that while the Bush administration saw and the Obama administration sees a worldwide “War on Terror” that gives the United States government license to hunt down and kill enemies, other nations aren’t willing to embrace such a broad notion of a battlefield and a “war” with no end in sight. That’s why they are resisting full cooperation with the United States when it comes to extraditions and Guantanamo detainees, Sorenson said.

“The question of whether we’re in an armed conflict is a difficult one to answer,” said Sorensen, daughter of Kennedy advisor and speech-writer Ted Sorensen. “This administration and the last administration have answered it in the affirmative. ... There remains some international resistance to the tribunals in Guantanamo. There are a number of nations that resist intelligence sharing when it involves the tribunals in Guantanamo Bay.”

All three professors appreciated Holder choosing Northwestern as the locale to articulate the administration’s policy.

“This was a very helpful speech. It was a speech for law students at a law school — it wasn’t for soundbites,” Sorensen said.

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