Obama Tries to Counter Criticisms of ‘War on Terror,’ Offers Defense of Drones

May 23, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

President Obama has come a long way since he declared during his first term that in fighting the so-called war on terror we should safeguard our fundamental values “as vigilantly as we protect our security.”

During his much touted counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama tried to return to that lofty rhetoric and even suggested an end would come to the indefinite war on terror. At other times, Obama sounded a bit too much like his predecessor in defending an aggressive approach by the CIA and military to hunt down and kill suspected terrorist overseas by way of drone strikes, even if those actions happen to take out a few American citizens and innocent civilians.  

“America’s actions are legal,” Obama said. “We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”

Regarding drone strikes, which the Department of Justice finally acknowledged has killed some American citizens, Obama offered an equally staunch defense.

Obama said the “use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists – our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute them, America cannot strike wherever we choose – our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”

The New York Times reported that the president would supposedly start “shifting control” of the drone strikes from the CIA to the military. But deeper in The Times story, it’s noted that the president “may not explicitly announce the shift in drones from the Central Intelligence Agency in his speech, since the agency’s operations remain formally classified ….” In a piece for Salon, Alex Pareene notes that formal classification, saying, “Maybe the president’s next policy shift can involve the absurd and ridiculous over-classification of everything to do with national security and the actions of our intelligence agencies.”   

Reporting for The Times in April, Scott Shane said since the start of the Obama administration, nearly 3,000 people have been killed by the drone strikes. As noted here, McClatchy Newspapers also provided an extensive study, based on U.S. intelligence reports revealed that the drone strikes killed thousands of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and very few were top al Qaeda operatives. 

Despite standing by an opaque drone warfare program, the president did claim he was committed to shuttering the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, which he promised to do during his first term. Again, the president urged “Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries.”

The president also addressed the inhumane treatment of Gitmo detainees, saying, “I know politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it, imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”

ACLU President Anthony D. Romero provided a mixed review of the president’s remarks. Regarding drone warfare, he lauded Obama for recognizing the executive branch needs “congressional oversight ….” But, Romero continued, “the president still claims broad authority to carrying out targeted killing far from any battlefield, and there is still insufficient transparency. We continue to disagree fundamentally with the idea that due process requirements can be satisfied without any form of judicial oversight by regular federal courts.”

The president’s speech offered lofty words about ending a perpetual war, and addressing the horror that is Gitmo, but we’ve heard some of this before. So far Obama has been unable to change much about a sprawling, ongoing war on terror. Indeed he has escalated parts of it – the use of drones in particular and largely defends that aspect today. If Obama is sincere about altering some of this legacy, he will need to do much more than give a speech.