Jameel Jaffer is a human rights and civil liberties attorney. Jaffer is the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the director of ACLU’s Center for Democracy, which is the department of the ACLU that works to ensure government accountability and to improve democratic values. Jaffer graduated from Williams College in 1994 with a degree in Mathematics and English, and then attended Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. The Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Jaffer and the ACLU have led to the release of many secret documents pertaining to tortures in Guantanamo and the targeted killings of three US citizens by US government in Yemen.
The Politic: How has your degree in Mathematics and English helped you in your career in human rights, and what do you think about the effects of your liberal arts education on your career?
I’m not sure it did affect my career in human rights. I studied Math and English only because I liked studying Math and English; I was very indecisive as an undergraduate student. Math and English seem like good ways to keep my options open. I don’t think there is a direct relation between those things and what I do now. Although learning how to think logically is a good background to studying law, and learning how to write is something you need to do to be a litigator. I suppose my background helps me in that way.
The Politic: Were you interested in human rights and civil liberties in college?
I didn’t get interested in these issues until I got into law school. At the law school, I wrote about some civil liberties issues. Then, I clerked for two judges after law school. I got to work on some civil liberties cases, which I found interesting and fascinating. When I moved to New York after law school, I started working with the ACLU pro bono, while I was at a corporate law firm. So, over time, I became more and more interested. I guess when I was at law school I was interested in international development issues. There is obviously a big human rights component to international development issues. So, eventually, I began working for the ACLU pro bono. That turned into some job opportunities at the ACLU later on. Now, I have been here for twelve years, which is longer than I have expected.
The Politic: How do you think a college student should prepare for a track in human rights?
My advice is just start doing it. There are all sorts of organizations that you can work with or you can volunteer for. Many campuses, including Yale, have ACLU chapters. There are other organizations such as the American Constitution Society and the Amnesty that are always looking for new people. You can be a research assistant to a professor who is working on human rights or civil liberties issues. I think that just developing that experience is really important. It is not hard to do it just requires a certain amount of dedication and creativity.
The Politic: You have been really successful in US government’s release of the documents related to tortures in Guantanamo. Why were you interested in this issue?
There were a couple of newspaper articles that suggested that some prisoners in the US detention facilities were abused or tortured, so we wanted to learn more about that. We wanted to learn if it was a broader pattern, and if so, whether the pattern was a result of a government policy. We filed some request under the Freedom of Information Act in 2003 asking for documents from various government agencies including the FBI and the Defense Department of the CIA. Over the course of the next few years, we were able to get some of those agencies to release the documents to us. The documents showed us that the torture of prisoners in military facilities and the CIA facilities were systemic not just operational, that it was a results of policy decisions of the highest level of the Bush administration, that senior officials had authorized interrogators to use torture, and that government lawyers had written memos to justify the use of torture. So, hundreds of prisoners had been tortured or abused as a result of these decisions. It was just a stunning set of discoveries that came to us through the documents over several years.
The Politic: How did you manage to make US government release these documents? What were your differences from other journalists that differentiated you and made you the person to accomplish that?
First of all, I do not think of myself as a journalist. I am a lawyer, not a journalist. That is one of the things that made it possible for us to get these documents because we were able not just to act for the documents but to file law sues that ultimately compelled the government to release the documents. You know, in the national security, the government releases very little information on its own accord. So, you have journalists who have sources like the whistleblowers inside the administration who sort of manage to get the information. But the other way to get information is to get courts to force the government. In this particular case that strategy worked.
The Politic: What kind of hardships have you faced during these acts and requests?
The biggest challenge is that most of these agencies are not interested in releasing information; they want to keep information secret. Our job is to convince courts to order the agencies release the information, and that requires writing persuasive legal arguments, occasionally appearing in the court and arguing that the CIA should release something that it does not want to release.
The Politic: Have you ever experienced prejudices from other people?
You know, when I do interviews or I post things online, in the comments section, there are often comments on my name, on the fact that I am Muslim or on the fact that I am Canadian. But I don’t actually think that they have affected my ability to be an effective attorney. You know those comments have always been at the margins. At the end of the day, when I walk into court, I represent the ACLU, and people take me seriously. Nobody in any position of power has ever said to me that you don’t have a right to do this work because you are Canadian or because you are Muslim. Those kinds of comments sometimes appear at the bottom of blogs, but that is about it. So, I have been lucky that way.
The Politic: How would you describe the freedom of information? What would your definition of it be?
I think that the public has a right to know what the government’s policies are. I think it has a right to know what the implications of these policies are and which decision makers are responsible for the government policies. When the government deprives somebody from his or her liberty, or tortures somebody at Guantanamo, or carries targeted killing overseas, I think that the public has a right to know why the government did it. On what factual basis did the government conclude that this person was somebody who should be locked up? On what theory did the government conclude that they had the authority to lock this person up? So, I think that the public has a right to know all of these. This right is one of the conditions of a democratic society. In a democratic society, the public should know what the government policies are and knows enough that it can change the policies if it doesn’t like them.
The Politic: What kind of information should be kept secret by the governments?
There is of course a narrow category of information that the government can and should keep secret. There are some obvious pieces of that: the codes of nuclear bomb, the blueprints for nuclear plants, or operational details about specific weapons, or clandestine sources, if it has a source within some terrorist group that is providing us with information. I don’t think the government should be required to disclose the sources. There are lots of things that the government can and should keep secret. I don’t think there is disagreement about that; I think that the disagreement is about all of the other things that the government is keeping secret, which are really more about law. We have a whole body of secret law now, a whole body of secret policy. And the government increasingly takes lethal action or other drastic action on the basis of secret evidence, and all those things are deeply problematic in a democracy.
The Politic: You have also made a lot of efforts to make Obama administration release information about targeted killings. Were there any difference between this experience and the issue of tortures in Guantanamo?
I think we have been less successful on the “targeted killing” front than we were on the “torture” front. It is a little bit strange, because in court we have been very successful. There have been two cases that went to the appeals court, one in Washington, DC and one in New York. And we won both of those cases. In both of those cases, the court said that the government is keeping too much information secret and has to release more information about the targeted killing program. But, in spite of those opinions, the government is still keeping secret a lot of the information that we think public should know about. The problem is that the legal cases move very slowly. For the government, delay is victory. For the Obama administration, if they can push all these disclosures another two years, then they will be out of the office. These policies will be history. The trick is not, so much, getting the information. We will get the information eventually. The trick is getting the information at the time the public actually needs it. And the public needs it now; the policies are in place now. We are returning on these targeted killings now, and the public doesn’t know whom we are killing, why we are killing them and even where we are killing. We don’t even know the complete list of countries which we are carrying out the targeted killing. It’s a very frustrating thing and I can’t give you a complete explanation for why we have been less successful in this area. But it is a frustrating thing.
The Politic: What are your current areas of interest in human rights, and what are your future plans?
I am still doing a lot of work on these drone issues. We are spending a lot of time on surveillance issues now. We represent Edward Snowden, and we are doing a lot of work on surveillance issues because of all the information that Snowden provided to the Guardian and the Washington Post. I think that the surveillance issues are one of the most pressing civil liberties and human rights issues right now. Because, not just here in the United States but globally, the growth of government surveillance power and corporate surveillance power is a huge threat to individual privacy and a huge threat to the freedom of speech and the freedom of association, which require a certain degree of privacy. So, this is the scenario that we are spending a lot of time and working on right now.
The Politic: Is there anything else you would add? Do you have any other advice for Yale students?
The challenges to human rights and civil liberties are bigger now than they have been for 50 years. A lot of the countries that people have been able to rely on as champions of human rights and civil liberties are no longer champions of those things. You know, the US, which built the Geneva Convention, is in some ways busy dismantling the international law framework that has been in place for 50 years. Now, more than ever, we need smart people and good people defending civil liberties and human rights. So, I’m hopeful that a lot of Yale students will end up in this field.