Quel récit collectif sommes-nous capables de mettre en avant qui puisse donner un sens au sacrifice de ces jeunes ? Et l’absence d’un tel récit – qui va au-delà du sens subjectif que chacun d’eux pouvait donner à l’éventualité de mourir au combat et que chacun assumait en s’engageant dans l’armée – dépossède les jeunes soldats tombés du sens de leur mort. Danièle Hervieu-Léger
Je conteste le mot de guerre, je le conteste totalement. Hervé Morin (ministre français de la Défense)
Avec un président qui se présente lui-même comme « normal », on s’attendait à revenir à moins d’emportement dans la gestion politico-médiatique de l’actualité, fut-elle dramatique comme l’est la mort de militaires français en Afghanistan. On pensait, naïvement sans doute, en avoir fini avec la manière du président Sarkozy, tout en vives colères et émotions sincères. Las ! C’est pire encore… (…) Bref, le chef de l’Etat donne à l’action d’un insurgé kamikaze un poids politique démesuré et envoie un message à tous les insurgés afghans : quatre morts français suffisent à bouleverser l’agenda des trois principaux personnages de l’Etat en charge de la défense ! Imagine-t-on Barack Obama dépêcher son secrétaire à la Défense en Afghanistan pour quatre morts ? Jean-Dominique Merchet
La résilience politique aux pertes, à distinguer de celle de l’ensemble de la nation en général plus forte) est de plus en plus faible (…) Cette très faible résilience politique induit une réticence de plus en plus marquée à l’engagement terrestre. Colonel Michel Goya (Irsem)
La France condamne l’action conduite contre Cheikh Ahmed Yassine qui a fait dix morts palestiniens comme elle a toujours condamné le principe de toute exécution extrajudiciaire, contraire au droit international. La pratique des exécutions extrajudiciaires viole les principes fondamentaux de l’Etat de droit sans lequel il n’y a pas de politique juste et efficace possible, y compris en matière de lutte contre le terrorisme. Cette pratique des forces armées israéliennes doit cesser. Au-delà de son caractère illégal, l’attaque d’hier risque d’être contre-productive au plan politique. Jean-Marc De La Sablière (représentant français à l’ONU, 2004)
Quand les drones frappent, ils ne voient pas les enfants. Faisal Shahzad (terroriste à la voiture piégée de Times Square)
Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas. The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes. Mohammed al-Ahmadi (avocat d’une ONG yéménite)
Un président américain ne devrait jamais hésiter à utiliser la force, même de manière unilatérale, pour protéger nos intérêts vitaux quand nous sommes attaqués ou sous le coup d’une menace imminente. Obama (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 23.04.07)
Si nous avons des informations exploitables sur des cibles terroristes importantes et que le président Musharraf n’agit pas, nous le ferons. Obama (01.08.08)
Il ne faut pas confondre ‘procès équitable et ‘procédure judiciaire’, surtout lorsqu’il est question de sécurité nationale. La Constitution garantit le droit à un procès équitable, pas à une procédure judiciaire. Eric Holder (ministre de la Justice américain défendant les assassinats ciblés)
En une semaine, il est passé de Jane Fonda à Docteur Folamour. Mitt Romney
On September 30, 2011, a drone flying over Yemen set a new precedent. Without a trial or any public court proceeding, the United States government killed two American citizens, Anwar Al Awlaki and Samir Khan. The target of the attack was Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Yemeni-American whose charismatic preaching inspired terrorist attacks around the world, including the 2009 killing of 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. Civil liberties groups argued that a dangerous new threshold had been crossed. For the first time in American history, the United States had executed two of its citizens without trial. The Obama Administration cited a secret Justice Department memorandum as justification for the attack. Its authors contended that Awlaki’s killing was legal due to his role in attacks on the United States and his presence in an area where American forces could not easily capture him. David Rohde
After the global outrage over Guantánamo, it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians. (…) It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. (…) It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term. Mr. Blair (ancien directeur du renseignement)
La popularité de ces aéronefs sans pilote n’est pas compliquée à comprendre. Ils ne sont pas chers, ils maintiennent les Américains hors des zones dangereuses et ils tuent ‘les méchants. Ils peuvent bien tuer des civils ou violer les lois, peu importe aux Américains. [Au contraire, cela] renforce son image d’homme (…) qui n’a pas peur d’utiliser la puissance américaine. Michael A. Cohen (Foreign Policy)
Qu’est donc devenu cet artisan de paix récompensé par un prix Nobel, ce président favorable au désarmement nucléaire, cet homme qui s’était excusé aux yeux du monde des agissements honteux de ces Etats-Unis qui infligeaient des interrogatoires musclés à ces mêmes personnes qu’il n’hésite pas aujourd’hui à liquider ? Il ne s’agit pas de condamner les attaques de drones. Sur le principe, elles sont complètement justifiées. Il n’y a aucune pitié à avoir à l’égard de terroristes qui s’habillent en civils, se cachent parmi les civils et n’hésitent pas à entraîner la mort de civils. Non, le plus répugnant, c’est sans doute cette amnésie morale qui frappe tous ceux dont la délicate sensibilité était mise à mal par les méthodes de Bush et qui aujourd’hui se montrent des plus compréhensifs à l’égard de la campagne d’assassinats téléguidés d’Obama. Charles Krauthammer
255 frappes au Pakistan, 38 au Yémen, 20 pour le seul mois d’avril (soit 6,5 fois plus que les 44 de Bush sans compter les 146 de Libye ou d’ailleurs), forces spéciales américaines dans 60 à 75 pays, attaques de drones dans pas moins de 5 pays étrangers (de l’Afghanistan à la Corne de l’Afrique), dommages collatéraux limités par nouvelle définition des impétrants (« tout individu d’âge militaire » y compris américain), liste secrète de cibles à liquider supervisée hebdomadairement et directement à la « cartes de baseball » par le président lui-même …
Attention: une campagne peut en cacher une autre!
A l’heure où, en cette journée de commémoration (nationale, s’il vous plait! – la guerre est-elle en train de devenir une affaire trop sérieuse pour la confier aux seuls politiques?) des quatre derniers soldats français tombés en Afghanistan…
Et entre les twits vengeurs de son actuelle compagne et les risques, avec l’éventualité de la fin de sa carrière politique suite à son élimination annoncée au 2e tour des législatives, de pétages de plomb de sa précédente …
Notre nouvelle Pleureuse en chef de l’Elysée (en voie – nouvelle promesse non tenue – de « peoplisation » avancée) qui se retrouve coincée entre sa promesse de campagne d’évacuer l’Afghanistan dès la fin de l’année puis de n’y maintenir que les « non-combattants » qui sont justement devenus les cibles de prédilection des talibans et de leurs infiltrés dans les troupes afghanes et son engagement de former lesdites troupes afghanes …
Pourrait bien se voir contraint de les confiner bien à l’abri sur leurs bases …
Retour avec une presse américaine qui nouvelle Belle au bois dormant semble brusquement se réveiller de son long et doux sommeil …
Sur le cruel dilemme d’un autre président, américain celui-là, coincé entre l’incroyable impunité, tant dans la presse que dans l’opinion nationale et internationale, dont bénéficie sa politique antiterroriste (si longtemps et violemment reprochée à Bush ou à ses inventeurs israéliens) lui permettant, à un coût modique en dollars et en vies de soldats américains mais au prix certes de l’abandon (sauf rares exceptions) de toute possibilité de collecter des informations et de susciter tant la haine des gouvernements et populations locales que des vocations terroristes, de ramener ainsi presque chaque jour son lot de terroristes abattus Ben Laden compris …
Et, avec l’impossibilité de compter sur son calamiteux bilan économique pour son éventuelle réélection dans quelques mois, la nécessité de justement faire parler – d’où les véritables fuites organisées actuelles – de la brillante réussite de ladite politique antiterroriste au risque (limité?) de voir la presse comme l’opinion prendre soudain conscience …
De l’existence, derrière l’actuelle campagne électorale pour la présidentielle de novembre (et, à défaut de la fermeture depuis si longtemps promise, l’impeccable appel au traitement humain des rares terroristes arrêtés), d’une véritable campagne d’assassinats ciblés orchestrée par leur héros lui-même.
Autrement dit que le plus rapide prix Nobel de la paix de l’histoire qu’ils avaient élu sur son éloquence d’artisan de la paix et surtout contre la prétendue brutalité de son prédécesseur …
Se trouve être en réalité, à l‘image du fameux Dr. Folamour de Kubrick dont on avait si souvent affublé le « cowboy Bush », « le président américain qui a approuvé le plus de frappes ciblées de toute l’histoire des Etats-Unis” …
Au fil de son premier mandat, c’est devenu la spécialité du président américain : sélectionner les terroristes à abattre et donner son aval à chaque frappe de drones à l’étranger. Une méthode expéditive qui suscite la polémique.
Jo Becker, Scott Shane
The New York Times
traduit par Courrier international
Foreign Policy a consacré la une de son numéro daté de mars-avril aux “guerres secrètes d’Obama”. Qui aurait pu croire il y a quatre ans que le nom de Barack Obama allait être associé aux drones et à la guerre secrète technologique ? s’étonne le magazine, qui souligne qu’Obama “est le président américain qui a approuvé le plus de frappes ciblées de toute l’histoire des Etats-Unis”.
Voilà donc à quoi ressemblait l’ennemi : quinze membres présumés d’Al-Qaida au Yémen entretenant des liens avec l’Occident. Leurs photographies et la biographie succincte qui les accompagnait les faisaient ressembler à des étudiants dans un trombinoscope universitaire. Plusieurs d’entre eux étaient américains. Deux étaient des adolescents, dont une jeune fille qui ne faisait même pas ses 17 ans. Supervisant la réunion dédiée à la lutte contre le terrorisme, qui réunit tous les mardis une vingtaine de hauts responsables à la Maison-Blanche, Barack Obama a pris un moment pour étudier leurs visages. C’était le 19 janvier 2010, au terme d’une première année de mandat émaillée de complots terroristes dont le point culminant a été la tentative d’attentat évitée de justesse dans le ciel de Detroit le soir de Noël 2009. “Quel âge ont-ils ? s’est enquis Obama ce jour-là. Si Al-Qaida se met à utiliser des enfants, c’est que l’on entre dans une toute nouvelle phase.”
La question n’avait rien de théorique : le président a volontairement pris la tête d’un processus de “désignation” hautement confidentiel visant à identifier les terroristes à éliminer ou à capturer.
Obama a beau avoir fait campagne en 2008 contre la guerre en Irak et contre l’usage de la torture, il a insisté pour que soit soumise à son aval la liquidation de chacun des individus figurant sur une kill list [liste de cibles à abattre] qui ne cesse de s’allonger, étudiant méticuleusement les biographies des terroristes présumés apparaissant sur ce qu’un haut fonctionnaire surnomme macabrement les “cartes de base-ball”. A chaque fois que l’occasion d’utiliser un drone pour supprimer un terroriste se présente, mais que ce dernier est en famille, le président se réserve le droit de prendre la décision finale.
Liquider sans ciller
Rien, dans le premier mandat du président n’a autant déconcerté ses partisans de gauche ni autant consterné ses contempteurs conservateurs que cette implication directe dans la lutte contre le terrorisme.
Une série d’interviews accordées au New York Times par une trentaine de ses conseillers permettent de retracer l’évolution d’Obama depuis qu’il a été appelé à superviser personnellement cette “drôle de guerre” contre Al-Qaida et à endosser un rôle sans précédent dans l’histoire de la présidence américaine. Ils évoquent un chef paradoxal qui approuve des opérations de liquidation sans ciller, tout en étant inflexible sur la nécessité de circonscrire la lutte antiterroriste et d’améliorer les relations des Etats-Unis avec le monde arabe.
John Brennan, le conseiller pour le contre-terrorisme d’Obama, assiste le président dans ses moindres décisions. Certains de ses confrères le comparent à un limier traquant les terroristes depuis son bureau aux allures de cave installé dans les sous-sols de la Maison-Blanche ; d’autres à un curé dont la bénédiction serait devenue indispensable à Obama, en écho à la volonté du président d’appliquer la théorie des philosophes chrétiens de la “guerre juste” à un conflit moderne.
Mais les frappes qui ont décimé les rangs d’Al-Qaida – depuis le mois d’avril, au moins 14 de ses membres sont morts au Yémen et 6 au Pakistan – ont également mis à l’épreuve l’attachement des deux hommes à des principes dont ils ont martelé l’importance pour vaincre l’ennemi sur le long terme. Aujourd’hui, ce sont les drones qui suscitent des vocations terroristes, et non plus Guantánamo. Lorsqu’il a plaidé coupable en 2010, Faisal Shahzad – l’homme qui a tenté de faire exploser une voiture piégée à Times Square – a justifié le fait de s’en prendre à des civils en déclarant au juge : “Quand les drones frappent, ils ne voient pas les enfants.”
Un curieux rituel
C’est le plus curieux des rituels bureaucratiques : chaque semaine ou presque, une bonne centaine de membres du tentaculaire appareil sécuritaire des Etats-Unis se réunissent lors d’une visioconférence sécurisée pour éplucher les biographies des terroristes présumés et suggérer au président la prochaine cible à abattre. Ce processus de “désignation” confidentiel est une création du gouvernement Obama, un macabre “club de discussion” qui étudie soigneusement des diapositives PowerPoint sur lesquelles figurent les noms, les pseudonymes et le parcours de membres présumés de la branche yéménite d’Al-Qaida ou de ses alliés de la milice somalienne Al-Chabab.
Sa Majesté des drones à la Maison-Blanche
Le chroniqueur conservateur Charles Krauthammer condamne vigoureusement la stratégie de lutte contre le terrorisme adoptée par Obama. L’usage massif des drones est en totale contradiction avec l’image de droiture morale que le président affiche, estime-t-il.
The Washington Post
Foreign Policy a consacré la une de son numéro daté de mars-avril aux “guerres secrètes d’Obama”. Qui aurait pu croire il y a quatre ans que le nom de Barack Obama allait être associé aux drones et à la guerre secrète technologique ? s’étonne le magazine, qui souligne qu’Obama “est le président américain qui a approuvé le plus de frappes ciblées de toute l’histoire des Etats-Unis”.
La lecture d’un récent article du New York Times portant sur la « petite activité hebdomadaire » du président a de quoi laisser pantois. On y apprend que tous les mardis Obama étale devant lui des cartes d’un genre très particulier où figurent les photos et les notices biographiques de terroristes présumés pour choisir quelle sera la prochaine victime d’une attaque de drone. Et c’est à lui qu’il revient de trancher : la probabilité de tuer un proche de la cible ou des civils se trouvant à proximité mérite-t-elle ou non d’interrompre la procédure ?
Cet article aurait pu s’intituler : « Barack Obama, Seigneur des drones ». On y apprend avec force détails comment Obama gère personnellement la campagne d’assassinats téléguidés. Et l’article fourmille de citations officielles des plus grands noms du gouvernement. Contrairement à ce que l’on pourrait croire, il ne s’agit pas de fuites mais bien d’un véritable communiqué de presse de la Maison-Blanche.
L’objectif est de présenter Obama comme un dur à cuire. Pourquoi maintenant ? Parce que, ces derniers temps, le locataire de la Maison-Blanche apparaît singulièrement affaibli : il semble impuissant alors que des milliers de personnes se font massacrer en Syrie ; il se fait rouler dans la farine par l’Iran comme en témoigne l’échec des dernières négociations sur le nucléaire à Bagdad ; Vladimir Poutine le traite avec mépris en bloquant toute intervention dans ces deux pays et lui a même infligé un camouflet public, en décidant de se faire remplacer [par son Premier ministre Medvedev] lors des derniers sommets du G8 et de l’Otan.
Le camp Obama pensait que l’exécution d’Oussama Ben Laden réglerait tous ses problèmes de politique étrangère. Mais la tentative par le gouvernement d’exploiter politiquement le premier anniversaire du raid meurtrier contre le chef d’Al-Qaida n’a pas eu les effets escomptés, bien au contraire. Après avoir abattu sa meilleure carte (la mort de Ben Laden), il lui fallait donc en trouver une nouvelle, et c’est là qu’intervient le « Seigneur des drones », un justicier solitaire, sans pitié pour les membres d’Al-Qaida.
Qu’est donc devenu cet artisan de paix récompensé par un prix Nobel, ce président favorable au désarmement nucléaire, cet homme qui s’était excusé aux yeux du monde des agissements honteux de ces Etats-Unis qui infligeaient des interrogatoires musclés à ces mêmes personnes qu’il n’hésite pas aujourd’hui à liquider ? L’homme de paix a été remplacé – juste à temps pour la campagne électorale de 2012 – par une sorte de dieu vengeur, toujours prêt à déchaîner son courroux.
Quel sens de l’éthique étrange. Comment peut-on se pavaner en affirmant que les Etats-Unis ont choisi la droiture morale en portant au pouvoir un président profondément offensé par le bellicisme et la barbarie de George W. Bush et ensuite révéler publiquement que votre activité préférée consiste à être à la fois juge et bourreau de combattants que vous n’avez jamais vus et que peu vous importe si des innocents se trouvent en leur compagnie.
Il ne s’agit pas de condamner les attaques de drones. Sur le principe, elles sont complètement justifiées. Il n’y a aucune pitié à avoir à l’égard de terroristes qui s’habillent en civils, se cachent parmi les civils et n’hésitent pas à entraîner la mort de civils. Non, le plus répugnant, c’est sans doute cette amnésie morale qui frappe tous ceux dont la délicate sensibilité était mise à mal par les méthodes de Bush et qui aujourd’hui se montrent des plus compréhensifs à l’égard de la campagne d’assassinats téléguidés d’Obama.
En outre le Seigneur des drones est un piètre stratège, car les terroristes morts ne peuvent pas parler. Les frappes aériennes de drones ne coûtent pas cher, ce qui est une bonne chose. Mais aller à la facilité a un coût. Ces attaques ne nous offrent aucune information sur les réseaux terroristes ni sur leurs projets. Capturer un seul homme pourrait être plus utile qu’en tuer dix. Le gouvernement Obama a révélé publiquement son opposition aux tribunaux militaires, sa volonté de juger Khalid Cheik Mohammed [considéré comme le cerveau des attentats du 11 septembre 2001] à New York et d’essayer vigoureusement (mais sans succès puisque, ô surprise, il n’y a pas d’autres solutions) de fermer Guantanamo Bay. Et pourtant ces délicates attentions à l’égard des terroristes quand ils sont prisonniers coexistent avec une volonté de les tuer directement dans leur lit.
Les prisonniers ont des droits, alors ne faisons pas de prisonniers, il y a là une morale perverse. Nous n’hésitons pas à tuer des terroristes, mais nous renonçons délibérément à obtenir des informations qui pourraient sauver des vies. Mais cela nous y penserons plus tard. Pour l’instant, réjouissons-nous de la haute stature morale et de l’absence de complaisance de notre Seigneur des drones présidentiel.
Pour le San Francisco Chronicle, Obama a tort de suivre la ligne de son prédécesseur George W. Bush.
San Francisco Chronicle
Pour Eric Holder, notre ministre de la Justice, il est légal de tuer à l’étranger des Américains soupçonnés de terrorisme sans procéder à un contrôle de constitutionnalité ni en informer l’opinion. Voilà une étonnante affirmation et une position bien révoltante de la part du gouvernement Obama, arrivé au pouvoir avec la promesse de revenir sur ce genre d’excès qui mettent à mal la Constitution.
Dans un discours prononcé devant des étudiants de la faculté de droit de la Northwestern University de Chicago, Eric Holder s’est essentiellement retranché derrière l’argument du “Faites-nous confiance” pour défendre ces assassinats ciblés. Les directives sont pourtant bien troubles : l’armée établira une liste de dangereux terroristes, y compris américains, les traquera et, si le pays où se trouve le suspect ne peut pas ou ne veut pas s’en occuper, les Etats-Unis s’en chargeront. L’exemple de référence est celui d’Anwar Al-Awlaki, l’imam d’Al-Qaida natif de l’Etat du Nouveau-Mexique tué en septembre dernier au Yémen par une frappe de drone.
Dans le cadre fixé par le ministre de la Justice, il n’y a ni examen extérieur, ni décision de justice, ni information justifiant la présence de tel ou tel suspect sur cette liste noire. Aux esprits chagrins attachés au contrôle et au cadre légal Eric Holder a offert cet éclaircissement : “Il ne faut pas confondre ‘procès équitable et ‘procédure judiciaire’, surtout lorsqu’il est question de sécurité nationale. La Constitution garantit le droit à un procès équitable, pas à une procédure judiciaire.”
Contrairement à ce qu’il avait promis, Obama n’a toujours pas fermé le goulag de Guantanamo, et voilà aujourd’hui qu’il s’oppose à une vraie transparence à propos des assassinats ciblés. Ce mépris de l’Etat de droit de la part de l’exécutif était intolérable du temps de George W. Bush ; il ne l’est pas moins sous Barack Obama.
The Washington Post
June 1, 2012
A very strange story, that 6,000-word front-page New York Times piece on how, every Tuesday, Barack Obama shuffles “baseball cards” with the pictures and bios of suspected terrorists from around the world and chooses who shall die by drone strike. He even reserves for himself the decision of whether to proceed when the probability of killing family members or bystanders is significant.
The article could have been titled “Barack Obama: Drone Warrior.” Great detail on how Obama personally runs the assassination campaign. On-the-record quotes from the highest officials. This was no leak. This was a White House press release.
Why? To portray Obama as tough guy. And why now? Because in crisis after recent crisis, Obama has looked particularly weak: standing helplessly by as thousands are massacred in Syria; being played by Iran in nuclear negotiations, now reeling with the collapse of the latest round in Baghdad; being treated with contempt by Vladimir Putin, who blocks any action on Syria or Iran and adds personal insult by standing up Obama at the latter’s G-8 and NATO summits.
The Obama camp thought that any political problem with foreign policy would be cured by the Osama bin Laden operation. But the administration’s attempt to politically exploit the raid’s one-year anniversary backfired, earning ridicule and condemnation for its crude appropriation of the heroic acts of others.
A campaign ad had Bill Clinton praising Obama for the courage of ordering the raid because, had it failed and Americans been killed, “the downside would have been horrible for him. “ Outraged vets released a response ad, pointing out that it would have been considerably more horrible for the dead SEALs.
That ad also highlighted the many self-references Obama made in announcing the bin Laden raid: “I can report . . . I directed . . . I met repeatedly . . . I determined . . . at my direction . . . I, as commander in chief,” etc. ad nauseam. (Eisenhower’s announcement of the D-Day invasion made not a single mention of his role, whereas the alternate statement he’d prepared had the landing been repulsed was entirely about it being his failure.)
Obama only compounded the self-aggrandizement problem when he spoke a week later about the military “fighting on my behalf.”
The Osama-slayer card having been vastly overplayed, what to do? A new card: Obama, drone warrior, steely and solitary, delivering death with cool dispatch to the rest of the al-Qaeda depth chart.
So the peacemaker, Nobel laureate, nuclear disarmer, apologizer to the world for America having lost its moral way when it harshly interrogated the very people Obama now kills, has become — just in time for the 2012 campaign — Zeus the Avenger, smiting by lightning strike.
A rather strange ethics. You go around the world preening about how America has turned a new moral page by electing a president profoundly offended by George W. Bush’s belligerence and prisoner maltreatment, and now you’re ostentatiously telling the world that you personally play judge, jury and executioner to unseen combatants of your choosing and whatever innocents happen to be in their company.
This is not to argue against drone attacks. In principle, they are fully justified. No quarter need be given to terrorists who wear civilian clothes, hide among civilians and target civilians indiscriminately. But it is to question the moral amnesia of those whose delicate sensibilities were offended by the Bush methods that kept America safe for a decade — and who now embrace Obama’s campaign of assassination by remote control.
Moreover, there is an acute military problem. Dead terrorists can’t talk.
Drone attacks are cheap — which is good. But the path of least resistance has a cost. It yields no intelligence about terror networks or terror plans.
One capture could potentially make us safer than 10 killings. But because of the moral incoherence of Obama’s war on terror, there are practically no captures anymore. What would be the point? There’s nowhere for the CIA to interrogate. And what would they learn even if they did, Obama having decreed a new regime of kid-gloves, name-rank-and-serial-number interrogation?
This administration came out opposing military tribunals, wanting to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York, reading the Christmas Day bomber his Miranda rights and trying mightily (and unsuccessfully, there being — surprise! — no plausible alternative) to close Guantanamo. Yet alongside this exquisite delicacy about the rights of terrorists is the campaign to kill them in their beds.
You festoon your prisoners with rights — but you take no prisoners. The morality is perverse. Which is why the results are so mixed. We do kill terror operatives, an important part of the war on terror, but we gratuitously forfeit potentially life-saving intelligence.
But that will cost us later. For now, we are to bask in the moral seriousness and cool purpose of our drone warrior president.
The Washington Post
June 12, 2012
Pity the poor Obama administration leakers. They impart their much-cherished secrets to make their man look good and then, at the first chirp of criticism, are ordered to confess their (possible) crimes by the very same president they were seeking to please. In this, they are a bit like the male praying mantis. He does as asked, and then the female bites his head off.
What is remarkable about the recent leaks is the coincidence — it can only be that — that they all made the president look good, heroic, decisive, strong and even a touch cruel; born, as the birthers long suspected, not in Hawaii — but possibly on the lost planet Krypton. The leak that displayed all these Obamian attributes was the one that said the president personally approves the assassinations of terrorists abroad. He gives his okay, and the bad guys are dispatched via missiles from drones.
The New York Times, which broke this particular story, said it had interviewed “three dozen of [Obama’s] current and former advisers,” which suggests the sort of mass law-breaking not seen since Richard Nixon took out after commies, liberals, conservationists, antiwar protesters, Jews and, of course, leakers. The two U.S. attorneys assigned to finding the leakers may have to use the facilities at Guantanamo, which, as luck would have it, are somehow still open. Of course, the chances of a successful prosecution are slim, leak cases being hard to prove. Journalists, unlike the mob, still adhere to the Mafia code of silence, omertà. We are, at heart, traditionalists.
All administrations leak what they want when they want. Occasionally, some killjoy screams something about national security, but the republic somehow survives and the secret is usually only a secret to the American people, not to the enemy. This is undoubtedly the case with the recent disclosure regarding the use of a computer worm to wreak havoc with the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranians were onto it.
The leak that troubles me concerns the killing of suspected or actual terrorists. The triumphalist tone of the leaks — the Tarzan-like chest-beating of various leakers — not only is in poor taste but also shreds a long-standing convention that, in these matters, the president has deniability. The president of the United States is not the Godfather.
Of course, we have always known that the president, as commander in chief and all of that, is where the proverbial buck stops. But for the longest time, a polite fiction distanced the president from what, after all, is murder, and it helped somewhat in protecting him. Deniability is always a fiction, but it provides some space between the president and his orders, and does not plaster the presidential face on an act of extreme — and possibly illegal — violence. Presidents need protection from retaliation — not just in office, but for the rest of their lives. After all, the poor man’s drone is the suicide bomber.
The present and former government officials who leaked to the Times as well as to Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman are forgiven if they thought they were doing the boss’ bidding. After all, the president was serenely mum when the stories first hit. The White House did not react until some pesky Republicans, the reliably outraged John McCain in particular, yelled bloody murder. The leakers had to have noted that a torrent of leaks followed the killing of Osama bin Laden, with Obama characterized as just this side of personally dispatching the man with a butter knife. The Times’ David Sanger reports that the bragging got to the point that then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told national security adviser Tom Donilon to “shut the [expletive] up.” Pakistan, it turns out, did not want its nose rubbed in its failure to notice bin Laden living in Abbottabad — or, for that matter, the SEALs coming to get him.
Killing is a serious matter. The death of an American citizen (Anwar al-Awlaki) is deeply troubling (the government asked the government if it was legal, and the government said it was). For this as well as other assassinations, there could be blowback.
Assassination by drone has its charms — it has severely degraded al-Qaeda — and war, after all, is war. But I wonder if those presidents who knew war — a Truman, an Eisenhower, a Kennedy — would themselves boast about killing or let others do it for them. The leakers set out to blow a mighty trumpet for Obama. It came out, however, like a shrill penny whistle.
Jo Becker and Scott Shane
The New York Times
May 29, 2012
WASHINGTON — This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.
President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces. It was Jan. 19, 2010, the end of a first year in office punctuated by terrorist plots and culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful attack could derail his presidency. Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often indistinguishable from the civilians around them.
“How old are these people?” he asked, according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different phase.”
It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.
Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.
“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”
Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve.
In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.
They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands. When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”
His first term has seen private warnings from top officials about a “Whac-A-Mole” approach to counterterrorism; the invention of a new category of aerial attack following complaints of careless targeting; and presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.
The administration’s failure to forge a clear detention policy has created the impression among some members of Congress of a take-no-prisoners policy. And Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, has complained to colleagues that the C.I.A.’s strikes drive American policy there, saying “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said.
Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.
But the strikes that have eviscerated Al Qaeda — just since April, there have been 14 in Yemen, and 6 in Pakistan — have also tested both men’s commitment to the principles they have repeatedly said are necessary to defeat the enemy in the long term. Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants; in his 2010 guilty plea, Faisal Shahzad, who had tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, justified targeting civilians by telling the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”
Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, said that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.
Mr. Blair’s criticism, dismissed by White House officials as personal pique, nonetheless resonates inside the government.
William M. Daley, Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in 2011, said the president and his advisers understood that they could not keep adding new names to a kill list, from ever lower on the Qaeda totem pole. What remains unanswered is how much killing will be enough.
“One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”
‘Maintain My Options’
A phalanx of retired generals and admirals stood behind Mr. Obama on the second day of his presidency, providing martial cover as he signed several executive orders to make good on campaign pledges. Brutal interrogation techniques were banned, he declared. And the prison at Guantánamo Bay would be closed.
What the new president did not say was that the orders contained a few subtle loopholes. They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama, a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric. Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.
It was a pattern that would be seen repeatedly, from his response to Republican complaints that he wanted to read terrorists their rights, to his acceptance of the C.I.A.’s method for counting civilian casualties in drone strikes.
The day before the executive orders were issued, the C.I.A.’s top lawyer, John A. Rizzo, had called the White House in a panic. The order prohibited the agency from operating detention facilities, closing once and for all the secret overseas “black sites” where interrogators had brutalized terrorist suspects.
“The way this is written, you are going to take us out of the rendition business,” Mr. Rizzo told Gregory B. Craig, Mr. Obama’s White House counsel, referring to the much-criticized practice of grabbing a terrorist suspect abroad and delivering him to another country for interrogation or trial. The problem, Mr. Rizzo explained, was that the C.I.A. sometimes held such suspects for a day or two while awaiting a flight. The order appeared to outlaw that.
Mr. Craig assured him that the new president had no intention of ending rendition — only its abuse, which could lead to American complicity in torture abroad. So a new definition of “detention facility” was inserted, excluding places used to hold people “on a short-term, transitory basis.” Problem solved — and no messy public explanation damped Mr. Obama’s celebration.
“Pragmatism over ideology,” his campaign national security team had advised in a memo in March 2008. It was counsel that only reinforced the president’s instincts.
Even before he was sworn in, Mr. Obama’s advisers had warned him against taking a categorical position on what would be done with Guantánamo detainees. The deft insertion of some wiggle words in the president’s order showed that the advice was followed.
Some detainees would be transferred to prisons in other countries, or released, it said. Some would be prosecuted — if “feasible” — in criminal courts. Military commissions, which Mr. Obama had criticized, were not mentioned — and thus not ruled out.
As for those who could not be transferred or tried but were judged too dangerous for release? Their “disposition” would be handled by “lawful means, consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and the interests of justice.”
A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not. Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But a year later, with Congress trying to force him to try all terrorism suspects using revamped military commissions, he deployed his legal skills differently — to preserve trials in civilian courts.
It was shortly after Dec. 25, 2009, following a close call in which a Qaeda-trained operative named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had boarded a Detroit-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear.
Mr. Obama was taking a drubbing from Republicans over the government’s decision to read the suspect his rights, a prerequisite for bringing criminal charges against him in civilian court.
The president “seems to think that if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war,” former Vice President Dick Cheney charged.
Sensing vulnerability on both a practical and political level, the president summoned his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., to the White House.
F.B.I. agents had questioned Mr. Abdulmutallab for 50 minutes and gained valuable intelligence before giving him the warning. They had relied on a 1984 case called New York v. Quarles, in which the Supreme Court ruled that statements made by a suspect in response to urgent public safety questions — the case involved the location of a gun — could be introduced into evidence even if the suspect had not been advised of the right to remain silent.
Mr. Obama, who Mr. Holder said misses the legal profession, got into a colloquy with the attorney general. How far, he asked, could Quarles be stretched? Mr. Holder felt that in terrorism cases, the court would allow indefinite questioning on a fairly broad range of subjects.
Satisfied with the edgy new interpretation, Mr. Obama gave his blessing, Mr. Holder recalled.
“Barack Obama believes in options: ‘Maintain my options,’ “ said Jeh C. Johnson, a campaign adviser and now general counsel of the Defense Department.
‘They Must All Be Militants’
That same mind-set would be brought to bear as the president intensified what would become a withering campaign to use unmanned aircraft to kill Qaeda terrorists.
Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.
In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.
The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.
It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.
This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.
But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.
“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
About four months into his presidency, as Republicans accused him of reckless naïveté on terrorism, Mr. Obama quickly pulled together a speech defending his policies. Standing before the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, he mentioned Guantánamo 28 times, repeating his campaign pledge to close the prison.
But it was too late, and his defensive tone suggested that Mr. Obama knew it. Though President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate, had supported closing the Guantánamo prison, Republicans in Congress had reversed course and discovered they could use the issue to portray Mr. Obama as soft on terrorism.
Walking out of the Archives, the president turned to his national security adviser at the time, Gen. James L. Jones, and admitted that he had never devised a plan to persuade Congress to shut down the prison.
“We’re never going to make that mistake again,” Mr. Obama told the retired Marine general.
General Jones said the president and his aides had assumed that closing the prison was “a no-brainer — the United States will look good around the world.” The trouble was, he added, “nobody asked, ‘O.K., let’s assume it’s a good idea, how are you going to do this?’ “
It was not only Mr. Obama’s distaste for legislative backslapping and arm-twisting, but also part of a deeper pattern, said an administration official who has watched him closely: the president seemed to have “a sense that if he sketches a vision, it will happen — without his really having thought through the mechanism by which it will happen.”
In fact, both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the attorney general, Mr. Holder, had warned that the plan to close the Guantánamo prison was in peril, and they volunteered to fight for it on Capitol Hill, according to officials. But with Mr. Obama’s backing, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, blocked them, saying health care reform had to go first.
When the administration floated a plan to transfer from Guantánamo to Northern Virginia two Uighurs, members of a largely Muslim ethnic minority from China who are considered no threat to the United States, Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf denounced the idea. The administration backed down.
That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same administration official said. “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”
The Use of Force
It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.
This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.
The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.
“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?” Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.
The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.
Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.
“He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”
But the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes.
Asked what surprised him most about Mr. Obama, Mr. Donilon, the national security adviser, answered immediately: “He’s a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States.”
In fact, in a 2007 campaign speech in which he vowed to pull the United States out of Iraq and refocus on Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama had trumpeted his plan to go after terrorist bases in Pakistan — even if Pakistani leaders objected. His rivals at the time, including Mitt Romney, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mrs. Clinton, had all pounced on what they considered a greenhorn’s campaign bluster. (Mr. Romney said Mr. Obama had become “Dr. Strangelove.”)
In office, however, Mr. Obama has done exactly what he had promised, coming quickly to rely on the judgment of Mr. Brennan.
Mr. Brennan, a son of Irish immigrants, is a grizzled 25-year veteran of the C.I.A. whose work as a top agency official during the brutal interrogations of the Bush administration made him a target of fierce criticism from the left. He had been forced, under fire, to withdraw his name from consideration to lead the C.I.A. under Mr. Obama, becoming counterterrorism chief instead.
Some critics of the drone strategy still vilify Mr. Brennan, suggesting that he is the C.I.A.’s agent in the White House, steering Mr. Obama to a targeted killing strategy. But in office, Mr. Brennan has surprised many former detractors by speaking forcefully for closing Guantánamo and respecting civil liberties.
Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. But since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found in Mr. Brennan a principled ally.
“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”
The president values Mr. Brennan’s experience in assessing intelligence, from his own agency or others, and for the sobriety with which he approaches lethal operations, other aides say.
“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”
Yet the administration’s very success at killing terrorism suspects has been shadowed by a suspicion: that Mr. Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Mr. Obama, only one has been taken into American custody, and the president has balked at adding new prisoners to Guantánamo.
“Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee. “They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.”
Mr. Obama’s aides deny such a policy, arguing that capture is often impossible in the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen and that many terrorist suspects are in foreign prisons because of American tips. Still, senior officials at the Justice Department and the Pentagon acknowledge that they worry about the public perception.
“We have to be vigilant to avoid a no-quarter, or take-no-prisoners policy,” said Mr. Johnson, the Pentagon’s chief lawyer.
The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”
But he has found that war is a messy business, and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision.
One early test involved Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The case was problematic on two fronts, according to interviews with both administration and Pakistani sources.
The C.I.A. worried that Mr. Mehsud, whose group then mainly targeted the Pakistan government, did not meet the Obama administration’s criteria for targeted killing: he was not an imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistani officials wanted him dead, and the American drone program rested on their tacit approval. The issue was resolved after the president and his advisers found that he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.
Then, in August 2009, the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, told Mr. Brennan that the agency had Mr. Mehsud in its sights. But taking out the Pakistani Taliban leader, Mr. Panetta warned, did not meet Mr. Obama’s standard of “near certainty” of no innocents being killed. In fact, a strike would certainly result in such deaths: he was with his wife at his in-laws’ home.
“Many times,” General Jones said, in similar circumstances, “at the 11th hour we waved off a mission simply because the target had people around them and we were able to loiter on station until they didn’t.”
But not this time. Mr. Obama, through Mr. Brennan, told the C.I.A. to take the shot, and Mr. Mehsud was killed, along with his wife and, by some reports, other family members as well, said a senior intelligence official.
The attempted bombing of an airliner a few months later, on Dec. 25, stiffened the president’s resolve, aides say. It was the culmination of a series of plots, including the killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex. by an Army psychiatrist who had embraced radical Islam.
Mr. Obama is a good poker player, but he has a tell when he is angry. His questions become rapid-fire, said his attorney general, Mr. Holder. “He’ll inject the phrase, ‘I just want to make sure you understand that.’ “ And it was clear to everyone, Mr. Holder said, that he was simmering about how a 23-year-old bomber had penetrated billions of dollars worth of American security measures.
When a few officials tentatively offered a defense, noting that the attack had failed because the terrorists were forced to rely on a novice bomber and an untested formula because of stepped-up airport security, Mr. Obama cut them short.
“Well, he could have gotten it right and we’d all be sitting here with an airplane that blew up and killed over a hundred people,” he said, according to a participant. He asked them to use the close call to imagine in detail the consequences if the bomb had detonated. In characteristic fashion, he went around the room, asking each official to explain what had gone wrong and what needed to be done about it.
“After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States,” said Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “Even John Brennan, someone who was already a hardened veteran of counterterrorism, tightened the straps on his rucksack after that.”
David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.
In the most dramatic possible way, the Fort Hood shootings in November and the attempted Christmas Day bombing had shown the new danger from Yemen. Mr. Obama, who had rejected the Bush-era concept of a global war on terrorism and had promised to narrow the American focus to Al Qaeda’s core, suddenly found himself directing strikes in another complicated Muslim country.
The very first strike under his watch in Yemen, on Dec. 17, 2009, offered a stark example of the difficulties of operating in what General Jones described as an “embryonic theater that we weren’t really familiar with.”
It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.
The sloppy strike shook Mr. Obama and Mr. Brennan, officials said, and once again they tried to impose some discipline.
In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants.
But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.
Now, in the wake of the bad first strike in Yemen, Mr. Obama overruled military and intelligence commanders who were pushing to use signature strikes there as well.
“We are not going to war with Yemen,” he admonished in one meeting, according to participants.
His guidance was formalized in a memo by General Jones, who called it a “governor, if you will, on the throttle,” intended to remind everyone that “one should not assume that it’s just O.K. to do these things because we spot a bad guy somewhere in the world.”
Mr. Obama had drawn a line. But within two years, he stepped across it. Signature strikes in Pakistan were killing a large number of terrorist suspects, even when C.I.A. analysts were not certain beforehand of their presence. And in Yemen, roiled by the Arab Spring unrest, the Qaeda affiliate was seizing territory.
Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret — part of a pattern for a president who came into office promising transparency.
The Ultimate Test
On that front, perhaps no case would test Mr. Obama’s principles as starkly as that of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen, who had recently risen to prominence and had taunted the president by name in some of his online screeds.
The president “was very interested in obviously trying to understand how a guy like Awlaki developed,” said General Jones. The cleric’s fiery sermons had helped inspire a dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood. Then he had gone “operational,” plotting with Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the airliner was over the United States.
That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.
Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.
If the president had qualms about this momentous step, aides said he did not share them. Mr. Obama focused instead on the weight of the evidence showing that the cleric had joined the enemy and was plotting more terrorist attacks.
“This is an easy one,” Mr. Daley recalled him saying, though the president warned that in future cases, the evidence might well not be so clear.
In the wake of Mr. Awlaki’s death, some administration officials, including the attorney general, argued that the Justice Department’s legal memo should be made public. In 2009, after all, Mr. Obama had released Bush administration legal opinions on interrogation over the vociferous objections of six former C.I.A. directors.
This time, contemplating his own secrets, he chose to keep the Awlaki opinion secret.
“Once it’s your pop stand, you look at things a little differently,” said Mr. Rizzo, the C.I.A.’s former general counsel.
Mr. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director and now an adviser to Mr. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mr. Romney, commended the president’s aggressive counterterrorism record, which he said had a “Nixon to China” quality. But, he said, “secrecy has its costs” and Mr. Obama should open the strike strategy up to public scrutiny.
“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”
Tactics Over Strategy
In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, aimed at resetting relations with the Muslim world, Mr. Obama had spoken eloquently of his childhood years in Indonesia, hearing the call to prayer “at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.”
“The United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam,” he declared.
But in the months that followed, some officials felt the urgency of counterterrorism strikes was crowding out consideration of a broader strategy against radicalization. Though Mrs. Clinton strongly supported the strikes, she complained to colleagues about the drones-only approach at Situation Room meetings, in which discussion would focus exclusively on the pros, cons and timing of particular strikes.
At their weekly lunch, Mrs. Clinton told the president she thought there should be more attention paid to the root causes of radicalization, and Mr. Obama agreed. But it was September 2011 before he issued an executive order setting up a sophisticated, interagency war room at the State Department to counter the jihadi narrative on an hour-by-hour basis, posting messages and video online and providing talking points to embassies.
Mr. Obama was heartened, aides say, by a letter discovered in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. It complained that the American president had undermined Al Qaeda’s support by repeatedly declaring that the United States was at war not with Islam, but with the terrorist network. “We must be doing a good job,” Mr. Obama told his secretary of state.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s record has not drawn anything like the sweeping criticism from allies that his predecessor faced. John B. Bellinger III, a top national security lawyer under the Bush administration, said that was because Mr. Obama’s liberal reputation and “softer packaging” have protected him. “After the global outrage over Guantánamo, it’s remarkable that the rest of the world has looked the other way while the Obama administration has conducted hundreds of drone strikes in several different countries, including killing at least some civilians,” said Mr. Bellinger, who supports the strikes.
By withdrawing from Iraq and preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has refocused the fight on Al Qaeda and hugely reduced the death toll both of American soldiers and Muslim civilians. But in moments of reflection, Mr. Obama may have reason to wonder about unfinished business and unintended consequences.
His focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.
Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.
Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”
But Mr. Blair’s dissent puts him in a small minority of security experts. Mr. Obama’s record has eroded the political perception that Democrats are weak on national security. No one would have imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr. Romney.
Aides say that Mr. Obama’s choices, though, are not surprising. The president’s reliance on strikes, said Mr. Leiter, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, “is far from a lurid fascination with covert action and special forces. It’s much more practical. He’s the president. He faces a post-Abdulmutallab situation, where he’s being told people might attack the United States tomorrow.”
“You can pass a lot of laws,” Mr. Leiter said, “Those laws are not going to get Bin Laden dead.”
8 June 2012
The recent New York Times article on Obama’s use of drones has reverberated across the internet. The fractured lives and fractured diplomacy these attacks have left in their wake has become the subject of articles, blogs and television segments. While drone warfare is nothing new, the article revealed that the technology has become increasingly advanced and drones are now the go-to weapon for Obama’s ‘War on Terror’. Indeed, this lurch towards more hawkish right-wing policiess has some suggesting that the President has become “George W. Bush on steroids”. I believe Obama’s drone strategy is a betrayal of all who supported him. In turn, the silence of all those who voted for “hope” and “change” is worrying; it suggests that the US liberal electorate would rather support Obama, who they perceive as a lesser political evil than his Republican adversaries, than actually questioning the political hypocrisy his foreign policy entails.
The New York Times’ article is disturbing because it explains how Obama has instituted a command structure in which he authorises each drone strike. The now infamous ‘Kill list’ demonstrates Obama’s dramatic political shift. Indeed, he has adopted policies that, as Jack Goldsmith (Bush’s Assistant Attorney General) highlighted in 2009, have “copied most of the Bush programme” and have even “expanded some of it”.
It is understandable that some are finding it hard to reconcile this ‘Call of Duty’ strategy with the poetic election campaigner of 2008. Prior to being elected, Obama was consistently wary of how the ‘War on Terror’ was being conducted. He notably proclaimed in a 2002 speech : “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war”. And though he did take cover by stating that he does not oppose all forms of war, arguably engaging in drone warfare is “dumb” and “rash”.
The fallout from Obama’s warfaring is especially embarrassing in the light of his Nobel Peace Prize award in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. By awarding the honour to Obama, more on the basis of his anticipated achievements than actual evidence, an uncomfortable contradiction has developed: here is a man who is noted for talking peace while becoming ever more embroiled in the brutality of war.
Obama’s use of drones is only one element in his transformation from liberal to quasi-conservative. And there are commentators who believe he has always been a pragmatist and that his political record has shown him to be less idealistic than his rhetoric suggests. But even for the less cynically inclined, Obama’s continuation and extension of neo-conservative policy should be a numbing disappointment for liberals.
No doubt, US government officials will argue that Obama is engaging in the reality of modern warfare and that drones are a safer way of executing terrorists than employing ground troops. White House Counter Terrorism advisor John Brennan stated that civilian causalities are “exceedingly rare”. Well yes, they are “exceedingly rare”, but only because the CIA’s definition of a “combatant” is so broad that it effectively means anyone killed in a drone strike, as long as they are “military-age males” can be classified as a “combatant”. Such callousness damns not only those who were enamoured by Obama’s rhetoric of “hope” and “change”, but also anyone who believes civil liberties should not be eroded out of fear of the unknown.
This military policy also inadvertently undermines the US’s relations with countries crucial to its ‘War on Terror’. Diplomacy, particularly with Pakistan, has become increasingly strained following recent attacks, while Sudarsan Raghavan in The Washington Post suggested the use of drones is actually doing more damage than good to the US’s war effort.
Will such evidence against drone warfare impact on Obama’s re-election hopes? Anti-war sentiment was a large factor in catalysing the Republican Party’s electoral demise in 2008. Will it do the same for Obama? Perhaps not; Obama’s poll ratings were highest in the days following Osama bin Laden’s assassination, possibly indicating that an aggressive foreign policy is not always unwelcome. Yet a more probable explanation lies in the transitory upsurge of US patriotism following Osama bin Laden’s death. Tellingly, Obama’s poll figures quickly trailed off suggesting the latter, and indicating that a continuation of this foreign policy may not be a fast track to electoral success.
There has been a disconcerting lack of demonstrations opposing the use of drones. A few dedicated anti-war stalwarts in the Occupy movement spoke out, but they have had scant impact on public opinion. Young progressives, who were so pivotal in getting Obama elected, so fuelled by the optimism of the 2008 election campaign and so vocal in their disapproval of Bush’s war policies have all but disappeared; their voices are silent at a time when the Obama Administration is not just continuing similar policies but actually extending them. Any debate about the morality of drone warfare has not been undertaken en masse but has remained confined to academic discussions and broadsheet column inches. However, it is clear that America’s optimism has faded, and Obama’s failure to deliver on much of his inspiring rhetoric has intensified a climate of apathy. Actor Matt Damon, summed this up on CNN’s Piers Morgan Show when he stated scathingly: “I no longer hope for audacity”.
Drone strikes symbolise Obama’s transformation from a candidate who espoused change to an Imperial president very much in the mould of his predecessor. As Penn and Teller have said, the Obama Administration is “spending money America doesn’t have, to kill people they don’t know, for reasons no one understands”. His use of drone warfare is yet another test of principle for those who ever had the audacity to hope.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
The Washington Post
A stunning report in the New York Times depicted President Obama poring over the equivalent of terrorist baseball cards, deciding who on a “kill list” would be targeted for elimination by drone attack. The revelations — as well as those in Daniel Klaidman’s recent book — sparked public outrage and calls for congressional inquiry.
Yet bizarrely, the fury is targeted at the messengers, not the message. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressed dismay that presidential aides were leaking national security information to bolster the president’s foreign policy credentials. (Shocking? Think gambling, Casablanca). Republican and Democratic senators joined in condemning the leaks. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — AWOL in the prosecution of rampant bank fraud — roused himself to name two prosecutors to track down the leakers.
Please. Al-Qaeda knows that U.S. drones are hunting them. The Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Afghanis and others know the U.S. is behind the drones that strike suddenly from above. The only people aided by these revelations are the American people who have an overriding right and need to know.
The problem isn’t the leaks, it’s the policy. It’s the assertion of a presidential prerogative that the administration can target for death people it decides are terrorists — even American citizens — anywhere in the world, at any time, on secret evidence with no review.
It is a policy driven largely by the new technological capacity of pilotless aircraft. Drone strikes have rapidly expanded, becoming a centerpiece of the Obama strategy. Over the last three years, the Obama administration has carried out at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George W. Bush.
Drones are enormously seductive and widely popular. Video games made real, they are relatively cheap, risk no U.S. casualties, claim to be exactly targeted and, according to the administration, have been lethal in eliminating al-Qaeda’s operatives. As Adm. Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence for the Obama administration before being pushed out, notes, “It plays well domestically and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”
Drones are also alarming. As a recent congressional letter of inquiry notes, “They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths . . . They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.” The drone attacks may generate as many terrorists as they dispatch. They seduce the U.S. into literally policing the world, an intrusive presence that surely will generate hostility and retribution.
Moreover, the president’s claim offends the spirit and letter of the Constitution and shreds the global laws of war. Our founders were eager to curb the prerogative of kings to wage war and foreign adventures. That is why the Constitution gave Congress the power to declare war. Yet the president now claims the right to attack anywhere in the world in an apparently endless war against terrorism.
The argument, of course, is that we are at war with al-Qaeda’s terrorists — one that Congress authorized — and thus the president is free to track them down and attack them anywhere in the world, even if they are American citizens. To enforce this, the U.S. has Special Operations forces in some 60 to 75 countries and has unleashed drones in at least five.
The administration is at pains to suggest that no one is targeted for death until after extensive review, internal checks and balances and administrative “due process” of a sort. But this rationale is refuted by what we know from the administration’s own limited releases of information. Officials distinguish between “personality strikes” — which are targeted at named operatives — and “signature strikes” — which are triggered by evidence of allegedly threatening activity by unidentified persons. Not surprisingly, the latter have been notorious for the “collateral damage” — innocent civilians — who have been casualties.
Most Americans support the drones — after all they’re going after terrorists. But the administration is claiming the right to charge, try and execute an American citizen without a hearing or a trial and conviction. The Constitution, Attorney General Holder argues, “guarantees due process, not judicial process.” But once more, this tramples the entire framework of the Bill of Rights, which was devised to limit the power of the state to lock up political dissenters without an independent tribunal.
It is vital that Congress reassert its constitutional authority. In the 1952 Steel Seizure case, Justice Felix Frankfurter argued that “a systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of Congress and never before questioned . . . may be treated as a gloss on the executive power” vested in the president by the Constitution. The practice doesn’t just become legal, it becomes part of the Constitution, and Congress cannot thereafter challenge the authority that has been ceded.
Over twenty legislators led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) have written formally to the president asking that he explain openly “the process by which signature strikes are authorized and executed; the mechanisms used to “ensure such killings are legal;” and the mechanisms to track civilian casualties. The Congress should also insist that the Justice Department memo detailing the legal arguments relied on by the president be made public. And then Congress needs to hold a grand inquest on presidential war powers and the rights of both the Congress and American citizens.
The Washington Post
Aden, Yemen — Across the vast, rugged terrain of southern Yemen, an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes is stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants and driving tribesmen to join a network linked to terrorist plots against the United States.
After recent U.S. missile strikes, mostly from unmanned aircraft, the Yemeni government and the United States have reported that the attacks killed only suspected al-Qaeda members. But civilians have also died in the attacks, said tribal leaders, victims’ relatives and human rights activists.
“These attacks are making people say, ‘We believe now that al-Qaeda is on the right side,’ ” said businessman Salim al-Barakani, adding that his two brothers — one a teacher, the other a cellphone repairman — were killed in a U.S. strike in March.
Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.
But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.
The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
“The drone strikes have not helped either the United States or Yemen,” said Sultan al-Barakani, who was a top adviser to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. “Yemen is paying a heavy price, losing its sons. But the Americans are not paying the same price.”
In 2009, when President Obama was first known to have authorized a missile strike on Yemen, U.S. officials said there were no more than 300 core AQAP members. That number has grown in recent years to 700 or more, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say. In addition, hundreds of tribesmen have joined AQAP in the fight against the U.S.-backed Yemeni government.
As AQAP’s numbers and capabilities have grown, so has its reach and determination. That was reflected in a suicide bombing last week in the capital, Sanaa, that killed more than 100 people, mostly Yemeni soldiers.
On their Web sites, on their Facebook pages and in their videos, militants who had been focused on their fight against the Yemeni government now portray the war in the south as a jihad against the United States, which could attract more recruits and financing from across the Muslim world. Yemeni tribal Web sites are filled with al-Qaeda propaganda, including some that brag about killing Americans.
“Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in al-Qaeda-controlled areas,” said Mohammed al-Ahmadi, legal coordinator for Karama, a local human rights group. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders, but they are also turning them into heroes.”
An escalated campaign
Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has publicly defended the use of drone strikes, arguing that their precision allows the United States to limit civilian casualties and lessen risks for U.S. military personnel. The decision to fire a missile from a drone, he said, is taken with “extraordinary care and thoughtfulness.”
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen is “guided by the view that we must do what is necessary to disrupt AQAP plots against U.S. interests” and to help the Yemeni government build up its capabilities to fight AQAP.
“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”
The dramatic escalation in drone strikes in Yemen followed foiled plots by AQAP to bomb a U.S. airliner headed to Detroit in 2009 and to send parcel bombs via cargo planes to Chicago the following year. In April, Saudi intelligence agents helped foil an AQAP plot to plant a suicide bomber on a U.S.-bound plane.
On May 6, a U.S. drone strike killed Fahd al-Quso, a senior al-Qaeda leader who was on the FBI’s most-wanted list for his role in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden, an attack that killed 17 American sailors. The drone strike in Shabwa province also killed a second man, whom U.S. and Yemeni officials described as another al-Qaeda militant.
But according to his relatives, the man was a 19-year-old named Nasser Salim who was tending to his farm when Quso arrived in his vehicle. Quso knew Salim’s family and was greeting him when the missiles landed.
“He was torn to pieces,” said Salim’s uncle, Abu Baker Aidaroos, 30, a Yemeni soldier. “He was not part of al-Qaeda. But by America’s standards, just because he knew Fahd al-Quso, he deserved to die with him.”
Out of anger, Aidaroos said, he left his unit in Abyan province, the nexus of the fight against the militants. Today, instead of fighting al-Qaeda, he sympathizes with the group — not out of support for its ideology, he insists, but out of hatred for the United States.
‘More hostility’ toward U.S.
The U.S. strikes, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say, are also angering powerful tribes that could prevent AQAP from gaining strength. The group has seized control of large swaths of southern Yemen in the past year, while the government has had to counter growing perceptions that it is no more than an American puppet.
“There is more hostility against America because the attacks have not stopped al-Qaeda, but rather they have expanded, and the tribes feel this is a violation of the country’s sovereignty,” said Anssaf Ali Mayo, Aden head of al-Islah, Yemen’s most influential Islamist party, which is now part of the coalition government. “There is a psychological acceptance of al-Qaeda because of the U.S. strikes.”
Quso and Salim are from the Awlak tribe, one of the most influential in southern Yemen. So was Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American preacher who was thought to be a senior AQAP leader and was killed in September by a U.S. strike. The following month, another U.S. strike killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, also an American citizen, generating outrage across Yemen.
Awlak tribesmen are businessmen, lawmakers and politicians. But the strikes have pushed more of them to join the militants or to provide AQAP with safe haven in their areas, said tribal leaders and Yemeni officials.
“The Americans are targeting the sons of the Awlak,” Aidaroos said. “I would fight even the devil to exact revenge for my nephew.”
In early March, U.S. missiles struck in Bayda province, 100 miles south of Sanaa, killing at least 30 suspected militants, according to Yemeni security officials. But in interviews, human rights activists and victims’ relatives said many of the dead were civilians, not fighters.
Villagers were too afraid to go to the area. Al-Qaeda militants took advantage and offered to bury the villagers’ relatives. “That made people even more grateful and appreciative of al-Qaeda,” said Barakani, the businessman. “Afterwards, al-Qaeda told the people, ‘We will take revenge on your behalf.’ ”
In asserting responsibility for last week’s bombing in Sanaa, Ansar al-Sharia — the name by which AQAP goes in southern Yemen — declared that the attack was revenge for what it called the U.S. war on its followers.
The previous week, al-Qaeda’s supreme leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video portraying Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took office in February and vowed to fight AQAP, as an “agent” of the United States.
In some cases, U.S. strikes have forced civilians to flee their homes and have destroyed homes and farmland. Balweed Muhammed Nasser Awad, 57, said he and his family fled the city of Jaar last summer after his son, a fisherman, was killed in a U.S. strike targeting suspected al-Qaeda militants. Today, they live in a classroom in an Aden school, along with hundreds of other refugees from the conflict.
“Ansar al-Sharia had nothing to do with my son’s death. He was killed by the Americans,” Awad said. “He had nothing to do with terrorism. Why him?”
No Yemeni has forgotten the U.S. cruise missile strike in the remote tribal region of al-Majala on Dec. 17, 2009 — the Obama administration’s first known missile strike inside Yemen. The attack killed dozens, including 14 women and 21 children, and whipped up rage at the United States.
Today, the area is a haven for militants, said Abdelaziz Muhammed Hamza, head of the Revolutionary Council in Abyan province, a group that is fighting AQAP. “All the residents of the area have joined al-Qaeda,” he said.
The NY Times
May 30, 2012
It has been clear for years that the Obama administration believes the shadow war on terrorism gives it the power to choose targets for assassination, including Americans, without any oversight. On Tuesday, The New York Times revealed who was actually making the final decision on the biggest killings and drone strikes: President Obama himself. And that is very troubling.
Mr. Obama has demonstrated that he can be thoughtful and farsighted, but, like all occupants of the Oval Office, he is a politician, subject to the pressures of re-election. No one in that position should be able to unilaterally order the killing of American citizens or foreigners located far from a battlefield — depriving Americans of their due-process rights — without the consent of someone outside his political inner circle.
How can the world know whether the targets chosen by this president or his successors are truly dangerous terrorists and not just people with the wrong associations? (It is clear, for instance, that many of those rounded up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks weren’t terrorists.) How can the world know whether this president or a successor truly pursued all methods short of assassination, or instead — to avoid a political charge of weakness — built up a tough-sounding list of kills?
It is too easy to say that this is a natural power of a commander in chief. The United States cannot be in a perpetual war on terror that allows lethal force against anyone, anywhere, for any perceived threat. That power is too great, and too easily abused, as those who lived through the George W. Bush administration will remember.
Mr. Obama, who campaigned against some of those abuses in 2008, should remember. But the Times article, written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, depicts him as personally choosing every target, approving every major drone strike in Yemen and Somalia and the riskiest ones in Pakistan, assisted only by his own aides and a group of national security operatives. Mr. Obama relies primarily on his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.
To his credit, Mr. Obama believes he should take moral responsibility for these decisions, and he has read the just-war theories of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
The Times article points out, however, that the Defense Department is currently killing suspects in Yemen without knowing their names, using criteria that have never been made public. The administration is counting all military-age males killed by drone fire as combatants without knowing that for certain, assuming they are up to no good if they are in the area. That has allowed Mr. Brennan to claim an extraordinarily low civilian death rate that smells more of expediency than morality.
In a recent speech, Mr. Brennan said the administration chooses only those who pose a real threat, not simply because they are members of Al Qaeda, and prefers to capture suspects alive. Those assurances are hardly binding, and even under Mr. Obama, scores of suspects have been killed but only one taken into American custody. The precedents now being set will be carried on by successors who may have far lower standards. Without written guidelines, they can be freely reinterpreted.
A unilateral campaign of death is untenable. To provide real assurance, President Obama should publish clear guidelines for targeting to be carried out by nonpoliticians, making assassination truly a last resort, and allow an outside court to review the evidence before placing Americans on a kill list. And it should release the legal briefs upon which the targeted killing was based.
He was once a liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war. Now, according to revelations last week, the US president personally oversees a ‘kill list’ for drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Then there’s the CIA renditions, increased surveillance and a crackdown on whistleblowers. No wonder Washington insiders are likening him to ‘George W Bush on steroids’
2 June 2012
The revelation that Barack Obama keeps a ‘kill list’ of people to be targeted by drones has led to criticism from former supporters. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP
Amos Guiora knows all about the pitfalls of targeted assassinations, both in terms of legal process and the risk of killing the wrong people or causing civilian casualties. The University of Utah law professor spent many years in the Israel Defence Forces, including time as a legal adviser in the Gaza Strip where such killing strikes are common. He knows what it feels like when people weigh life-and-death decisions.
Yet Guiora – no dove on such matters – confessed he was « deeply concerned » about President Barack Obama’s own « kill list » of terrorists and the way they are eliminated by missiles fired from robot drones around the world. He believes US policy has not tightly defined how people get on the list, leaving it open to legal and moral problems when the order to kill leaves Obama’s desk. « He is making a decision largely devoid of external review, » Guiroa told the Observer, saying the US’s apparent methodology for deciding who is a terrorist is « loosey goosey ».
Indeed, newspaper revelations last week about the « kill list » showed the Obama administration defines a militant as any military-age male in the strike zone when its drone attacks. That has raised the hackles of many who saw Obama as somehow more sophisticated on terrorism issues than his predecessor, George W Bush. But Guiora does not view it that way. He sees Obama as the same as Bush, just much more enthusiastic when it comes to waging drone war. « If Bush did what Obama has been doing, then journalists would have been all over it, » he said.
But the « kill list » and rapidly expanded drone programme are just two of many aspects of Obama’s national security policy that seem at odds with the expectations of many supporters in 2008. Having come to office on a powerful message of breaking with Bush, Obama has in fact built on his predecessor’s national security tactics.
Obama has presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency. He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers. He has made more government documents classified than any previous president. He has broken his promise to close down the controversial Guantánamo Bay prison and pressed on with prosecutions via secretive military tribunals, rather than civilian courts. He has preserved CIA renditions. He has tried to grab broad new powers on what defines a terrorist or a terrorist supporter and what can be done with them, often without recourse to legal process.
The sheer scope and breadth of Obama’s national security policy has stunned even fervent Bush supporters and members of the Washington DC establishment. In last week’s New York Times article that detailed the « kill list », Bush’s last CIA director, Michael Hayden, said Obama should open the process to more public scrutiny. « Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a [Department of Justice] safe, » he told the newspaper.
Even more pertinently, Aaron David Miller, a long-term Middle East policy adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, delivered a damning verdict in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. He wrote bluntly: « Barack Obama has become George W Bush on steroids. »
Many disillusioned supporters would agree. Jesselyn Radack was a justice department ethics adviser under Bush who became a whistleblower over violations of the legal rights of « American Taliban » John Walker Lindh. Now Radack works for the Government Accountability Project, defending fellow whistleblowers. She campaigned for Obama, donated money and voted for him. Now she has watched his administration – which promised transparency and whistleblower protection – crack down on national security whistleblowers.
It has used the Espionage Act – an obscure first world war anti-spy law – six times. That is more such uses in three years than all previous presidents combined. Cases include John Kiriakou, a CIA agent who leaked details of waterboarding, and Thomas Drake, who revealed the inflated costs of an NSA data collection project that had been contracted out. « We did not see this coming. Obama has led the most brutal crackdown on whistleblowers ever, » Radack said.
Yet the development fits in with a growing level of secrecy in government under Obama. Last week a report by the Information Security Oversight Office revealed 2011 had seen US officials create more than 92m classified documents: the most ever and 16m more than the year before. Officials insist much of the growth is due to simple administrative procedure, but anti-secrecy activists are not convinced. Some estimates put the number of documents wrongly classified as secret at 90%.
« We are seeing the reversal of the proper flow of information between the government and the governed. It is probably the fundamental civil liberties issue of our time, » said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert at the Brennan Centre for Justice. « The national security establishment is getting bigger and bigger. »
One astonishing example of this lies high in the mountain deserts of Utah. This is the innocuously named Utah Data Centre being built for the NSA near a tiny town called Bluffdale. When completed next year, the heavily fortified $2bn building, which is self-sufficient with its own power plant, will be five times the size of the US Capitol in Washington DC. It will house gigantic servers that will store vast amounts of data from ordinary Americans that will be sifted and mined for intelligence clues. It will cover everything from phone calls to emails to credit card receipts.
Yet the UDC is just the most obvious sign of how the operations and scope of the NSA has grown since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under Bush, a key part was a secret « warrantless wiretapping » programme that was scrapped when it was exposed. However, in 2008 Congress passed a bill that effectively allowed the programme to continue by simply legalising key components. Under Obama, that work has intensified and earlier this year a Senate intelligence committee extended the law until 2017, which would make it last until the end of any Obama second term.
« Obama did not reverse what Bush did, he went beyond it. Obama is just able to wrap it up in a better looking package. He is more liberal, more eloquent. He does not look like a cowboy, » said James Bamford, journalist and author of numerous books about the NSA including 2008′s The Shadow Factory.
That might explain the lack of media coverage of Obama’s planned changes to a military funding law called the National Defence Authorisation Act. A clause was added to the NDAA that had such a vague definition of support of terrorism that journalists and political activists went to court claiming it threatened them with indefinite detention for things like interviewing members of Hamas or WikiLeaks. Few expected the group to win, but when lawyers for Obama refused to definitively rebut their claims, a New York judge ruled in their favour. Yet, far from seeking to adjust the NDAA’s wording, the White House is now appealing against the decision.
That hard line should perhaps surprise only the naive. « He’s expanded the secrecy regime in general, » said Radack. Yet it is the drone programme and « kill list » that have emerged as most central to Obama’s hardline national security policy. In January 2009, when Obama came to power, the drone programme existed only for Pakistan and had seen 44 strikes in five years. With Obama in office it expanded to Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia with more than 250 strikes. Since April there have been 14 strikes in Yemen alone.
Civilian casualties are common. Obama’s first strike in Yemen killed two families who were neighbours of the target. One in Pakistan missed and blew up a respected tribal leader and a peace delegation. He has deliberately killed American citizens, including the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September last year, and accidentally killed others, such as Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman.
The drone operation now operates out of two main bases in the US, dozens of smaller installations and at least six foreign countries. There are « terror Tuesday » meetings to discuss targets which Obama’s campaign manager, David Axelrod, sometimes attends, lending credence to those who see naked political calculation involved.
Yet for some, politics seems moot. Obama has shown himself to be a ruthless projector of national security powers at home and abroad, but the alternative in the coming election is Republican Mitt Romney.
« Whoever gets elected, whether it’s Obama or Romney, they are going to continue this very dangerous path, » said Radack. « It creates a constitutional crisis for our country. A crisis of who we are as Americans. You can’t be a free society when all this happens in secret. »
Death from the sky
• Popularly called drones, the flying robots used by Obama are referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles by the defence industry that makes them. The air force, however, calls them RPAs, or remotely piloted aircraft, as they are flown by human pilots, just at a great distance from where they are operating.
• The US air force alone has up to 70,000 people processing the surveillance information collected from drones. This includes examining footage of people and vehicles on the ground in target countries and trying to observe patterns in their movements.
• Drones are not just used by the military and intelligence community. US Customs and Border Protection has drones patrolling land and sea borders. They are used in drug busts and to prevent illegal cross-border traffic.
• It is assumed the Pentagon alone has 7,000 or so drones at work. Ten years ago there were fewer than 50. Their origins go back to the Vietnam war and beyond that to the use of reconnaissance balloons on the battlefield.
• Last year a diplomatic crisis with Iran broke out after a sophisticated US drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, crash-landed on Iranian soil. Iranian forces claimed it had been downed by sophisticated jamming technology.
Executive privilege has seduced the president into a reckless ‘kill first, ask questions later’ policy that explodes the US constitution
11 June 2012
A Pakistani protest against US drone strikes. The latest two attacks have killed 12 people
A Pakistani protest in June 2012, after two recent US drone strikes killed 12 people. Photograph: SS Mirza/AFP/Getty
In his first campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama promised to reverse the worst excesses of the Bush administration’s approach to terrorism – such as the use of torture, the rendition of terrorist suspects to CIA-run black sites around the globe, and the denial of basic legal rights to prisoners in Guantánamo – and to develop a counterterrorism policy that was consistent with the legal and moral tradition of the United States. In an address at the Woodrow Wilson Center in August 2007, Obama criticized the Bush administration for putting forward a « false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand », and swore to provide « our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our constitution and our freedom ».
As a candidate, Obama also promised to restore proper legislative and judicial oversight to counterterrorism operations. Rather than treat counterterrorism policy as an area of exception, operating without the normal safeguards that protect the rights of the accused, Obama promised that his approach « will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary. »
Four years later, it is clear that President Obama has delivered a very different counterterrorism policy from that which he promised on the campaign trail. (Full disclosure: I was an adviser on the Obama campaign’s counterterrorism expert group from July 2007-November 2008.) In fairness, he has delivered on a few of his promises, including closing the CIA-run « black site » prisons abroad and ordering that interrogations of all suspects be conducted according to the US army field manual, which proscribes many of the tactics widely considered torture. And some failures were not wholly his own: Obama’s inability to close Guantánamo Bay was due more to congressional opposition and to an array of legal obstacles than to his own lack of initiative.
Yet, contrary to his campaign promises, Obama has left most of the foundations of Bush’s counterterrorism approach intact, including its presumption of executive privilege, its tolerance of indefinite detention in Guantánamo and elsewhere and its refusal to grant prisoners in America’s jails abroad habeas corpus rights. While the language of the « war on terror » has been dropped, the mindset of the Bush approach – that America is forever at war, constantly on the offensive to kill « bad guys » before they get to the United States – has crept into this administration and been translated into policy in new and dangerous ways.
This fact is clearly demonstrated in a recent New York Times article, which details how President Obama has become personally involved in an elaborate internal process by which his administration decides who will be the next victim of America’s drone strikes. The article itself – clearly written with the cooperation of the administration, as the writers had unprecedented access to three dozen counterterrorism advisers – was designed to showcase Obama as a warrior president, thoughtfully wrestling with the moral issues involved in drone strikes, but forceful enough to pull the trigger when needed.
What it instead revealed was that the president has routinized and normalized extrajudicial killing from the Oval Office, taking advantage of America’s temporary advantage in drone technology to wage a series of shadow wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Without the scrutiny of the legislature and the courts, and outside the public eye, Obama is authorizing murder on a weekly basis, with a discussion of the guilt or innocence of candidates for the « kill list » being resolved in secret on « Terror Tuesday » teleconferences with administration officials and intelligence officials.
The creation of this « kill list » – as well as the dramatic escalation in drone strikes, which have now killed at least 2,400 people in Pakistan alone, since 2004 – represents a betrayal of President Obama’s promise to make counterterrorism policies consistent with the US constitution. As Charles Pierce has noted, there is nothing in the constitution that allows the president to wage a private war on individuals outside the authorization of Congress.
The spirit of the constitution was quite the opposite: all of the founders were concerned, in varying degrees, with the risk of allowing the president to exercise too much discretion when declaring war or using force abroad. For this reason, the constitution explicitly grants the right to declare war to the Congress in order to restrain the president from chasing enemies around the world based solely on his authority as commander-in-chief. The founders would be horrified, not comforted, to know that the president has implicated himself in the killing of foreign nationals in states against which the Congress has not passed a declaration of war.
Beyond bypassing the constitution and the War Powers Act, the Obama administration has also adopted a dangerously broad interpretation of the legal right to use drone strikes against terrorist suspects abroad. According to his counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, the legal authority for the drone strikes derives from the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by the Congress in September 2001 to authorize the attack on Afghanistan. He notes that there is « nothing in the AUMF that restricts the use of military force against al-Qa’ida to Afghanistan ».
This interpretation treats the AUMF as a warrant to allow the president to use force against anyone at any time in a war without a defined endpoint.
Together with the bland assertion that the US has the right to self-defense against al-Qaida under international law, these legal arguments have enabled the president to expand drone operations against terrorist organizations to Yemen and Somalia, as well as to escalate the campaign against militant networks in Pakistan. To date, Obama has launched 278 drone strikes against targets in Pakistan. The use of drone strikes is now so commonplace that some critics have begun to wonder if the administration has adopted a « kill, not capture » policy, forsaking the intelligence gains of capturing suspects for an approach that leaves no one alive to pose a threat.
This vast, expansive interpretation of executive power to enable drone wars conducted in secret around the globe has also set dangerous precedent, which the administration has not realized or acknowledged. Once Obama leaves office, there is nothing stopping the next president from launching his own drone strikes, perhaps against a different and more controversial array of targets. The infrastructure and processes of vetting the « kill list » will remain in place for the next president, who may be less mindful of moral and legal implications of this action than Obama supposedly is.
For those Democrats who are comforted by the fact that Obama has the final say in authorizing drone strikes and so refuse to criticize the administration, ask yourself: would you be as comfortable if the next decision on who is killed by a drone was left to President Romney, or President Palin?
Also in contravention of his campaign promises, the Obama administration has worked to expand its power of the executive and to resist oversight from the other branches of government. While candidate Obama insisted that even terrorist suspects deserved their due process rights and a chance to defend themselves in some kind of a court, his administration has now concluded that a review of the evidence by the executive branch itself – even merely a hasty discussion during one of the « Terror Tuesdays » – is equivalent to granting a terrorist suspect due process rights. With little fanfare, it has also concluded that American citizens may now be killed abroad without access to a « judicial process ».
As the complexity and consequences of the drone strikes have grown, the administration has insisted that it alone should be trusted with the decision about when drone strikes are permitted, and consequently provides only the bare minimum of information to congressional oversight committees about drone activities.
What is also striking about Obama’s embrace of drones and targeted killings is that he – who, during his 2008 campaign, displayed awareness that America’s reckless actions abroad were damaging to its long-term interests – has become so indifferent to civilian casualties. According to statistics compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 551 civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, though the figure could be much higher. Yet, the Obama administration has consistently argued that almost no civilians are killed in these strikes, despite independent assessments that put the number of civilians killed as much higher.
This claim is only possible because the administration has engaged in an Orwellian contortion of language, which assumes that anyone in the area of a drone strike must be « up to no good » and therefore a militant. This assumption of guilt by association, and the grotesque misuse of definitions to cover up the deaths of innocents, including children, has allowed the administration to inflate the number of successful « hits » it has, while playing down the number of civilian casualties.
Now emboldened by this apparent success and the lack of an outcry over deaths caused by drone strikes, the administration is proposing to loosen the standards for targeting in Yemen even further by approving so-called « signature strikes », in which attacks are launched on patterns of behavior rather than the known presence of a terrorist operative. These signature strikes are almost guaranteed to increase the number of civilian casualties, as they are far more likely to catch innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The drone strikes are portrayed by the administration as successful because they are able to take out high-ranking terrorist operatives, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi . But such a portrayal conflates a tactical victory (killing one al-Qaida commander) with a strategic success (that is, dampening the growth of extremist movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan). It also rarely looks at the other side of the ledger and asks whether the drone strikes have jeopardized the stability of the governments of Pakistan and Yemen, possibly risking more chaos if they are overthrown.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to control counterterrorism operations and to put them in their proper place as one piece of a wider set of relationships with other governments. But he has done the opposite, allowing short-term tactical victories against terrorist networks to overwhelm America’s wider strategic priorities and leave its relations with key governments in a parlous state. His embrace of drones and his willingness to shoot first may also be policies that the US comes to regret when its rivals, such as China begin to develop and use their own drones.
Beyond simply failing to live up to campaign promises, the real tragedy of Obama’s counterterrorism policy is that he has squandered an unprecedented opportunity to redefine the struggle against al-Qaida in a way that moves decisively beyond the Bush administration’s mindset. Instead, he has provided another iteration of that approach, with a level of cold-blooded ruthlessness and a contempt for the constitutional limits imposed on executive power that rivals his predecessor.
Instead of restoring counterterrorism to its proper place among America’s other foreign policy priorities, President Obama has been seduced by political expediency and the lure of new technology into adopting a policy that kills first and asks questions later. He may succeed in crippling al-Qaida and preventing some attacks today, but it is now harder than ever to believe that a young child in Pakistan hearing the whirring noises of drones above them will look up and see Obama’s America as « the relentless opponent of terror and tyranny, and the light of hope to the world ».
Peter W. Singer
The Washington Post
January 21, 2012
IN democracies like ours, there have always been deep bonds between the public and its wars. Citizens have historically participated in decisions to take military action, through their elected representatives, helping to ensure broad support for wars and a willingness to share the costs, both human and economic, of enduring them.
In America, our Constitution explicitly divided the president’s role as commander in chief in war from Congress’s role in declaring war. Yet these links and this division of labor are now under siege as a result of a technology that our founding fathers never could have imagined.
Just 10 years ago, the idea of using armed robots in war was the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. Today, the United States military has more than 7,000 unmanned aerial systems, popularly called drones. There are 12,000 more on the ground. Last year, they carried out hundreds of strikes — both covert and overt — in six countries, transforming the way our democracy deliberates and engages in what we used to think of as war.
We don’t have a draft anymore; less than 0.5 percent of Americans over 18 serve in the active-duty military. We do not declare war anymore; the last time Congress actually did so was in 1942 — against Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. We don’t buy war bonds or pay war taxes anymore. During World War II, 85 million Americans purchased war bonds that brought the government $185 billion; in the last decade, we bought none and instead gave the richest 5 percent of Americans a tax break.
And now we possess a technology that removes the last political barriers to war. The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter — and the impact that military casualties have on voters and on the news media — they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way.
For the first 200 years of American democracy, engaging in combat and bearing risk — both personal and political — went hand in hand. In the age of drones, that is no longer the case.
Today’s unmanned systems are only the beginning. The original Predator, which went into service in 1995, lacked even GPS and was initially unarmed; newer models can take off and land on their own, and carry smart sensors that can detect a disruption in the dirt a mile below the plane and trace footprints back to an enemy hide-out.
There is not a single new manned combat aircraft under research and development at any major Western aerospace company, and the Air Force is training more operators of unmanned aerial systems than fighter and bomber pilots combined. In 2011, unmanned systems carried out strikes from Afghanistan to Yemen. The most notable of these continuing operations is the not-so-covert war in Pakistan, where the United States has carried out more than 300 drone strikes since 2004.
Yet this operation has never been debated in Congress; more than seven years after it began, there has not even been a single vote for or against it. This campaign is not carried out by the Air Force; it is being conducted by the C.I.A. This shift affects everything from the strategy that guides it to the individuals who oversee it (civilian political appointees) and the lawyers who advise them (civilians rather than military officers).
It also affects how we and our politicians view such operations. President Obama’s decision to send a small, brave Navy Seal team into Pakistan for 40 minutes was described by one of his advisers as “the gutsiest call of any president in recent history.” Yet few even talk about the decision to carry out more than 300 drone strikes in the very same country.
I do not condemn these strikes; I support most of them. What troubles me, though, is how a new technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make. Something that would have previously been viewed as a war is simply not being treated like a war.
THE change is not limited to covert action. Last spring, America launched airstrikes on Libya as part of a NATO operation to prevent Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government from massacring civilians. In late March, the White House announced that the American military was handing over combat operations to its European partners and would thereafter play only a supporting role.
The distinction was crucial. The operation’s goals quickly evolved from a limited humanitarian intervention into an air war supporting local insurgents’ efforts at regime change. But it had limited public support and no Congressional approval.
When the administration was asked to explain why continuing military action would not be a violation of the War Powers Resolution — a Vietnam-era law that requires notifying Congress of military operations within 48 hours and getting its authorization after 60 days — the White House argued that American operations did not “involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof.” But they did involve something we used to think of as war: blowing up stuff, lots of it.
Starting on April 23, American unmanned systems were deployed over Libya. For the next six months, they carried out at least 146 strikes on their own. They also identified and pinpointed the targets for most of NATO’s manned strike jets. This unmanned operation lasted well past the 60-day deadline of the War Powers Resolution, extending to the very last airstrike that hit Colonel Qaddafi’s convoy on Oct. 20 and led to his death.
Choosing to make the operation unmanned proved critical to initiating it without Congressional authorization and continuing it with minimal public support. On June 21, when NATO’s air war was lagging, an American Navy helicopter was shot down by pro-Qaddafi forces. This previously would have been a disaster, with the risk of an American aircrew being captured or even killed. But the downed helicopter was an unmanned Fire Scout, and the story didn’t even make the newspapers the next day.
Congress has not disappeared from all decisions about war, just the ones that matter. The same week that American drones were carrying out their 145th unauthorized airstrike in Libya, the president notified Congress that he had deployed 100 Special Operations troops to a different part of Africa.
This small unit was sent to train and advise Ugandan forces battling the cultish Lord’s Resistance Army and was explicitly ordered not to engage in combat. Congress applauded the president for notifying it about this small noncombat mission but did nothing about having its laws ignored in the much larger combat operation in Libya.
We must now accept that technologies that remove humans from the battlefield, from unmanned systems like the Predator to cyberweapons like the Stuxnet computer worm, are becoming the new normal in war.
And like it or not, the new standard we’ve established for them is that presidents need to seek approval only for operations that send people into harm’s way — not for those that involve waging war by other means.
WITHOUT any actual political debate, we have set an enormous precedent, blurring the civilian and military roles in war and circumventing the Constitution’s mandate for authorizing it. Freeing the executive branch to act as it chooses may be appealing to some now, but many future scenarios will be less clear-cut. And each political party will very likely have a different view, depending on who is in the White House.
Unmanned operations are not “costless,” as they are too often described in the news media and government deliberations. Even worthy actions can sometimes have unintended consequences. Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, was drawn into terrorism by the very Predator strikes in Pakistan meant to stop terrorism.
Similarly, C.I.A. drone strikes outside of declared war zones are setting a troubling precedent that we might not want to see followed by the close to 50 other nations that now possess the same unmanned technology — including China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran.
A deep deliberation on war was something the framers of the Constitution sought to build into our system. Yet on Tuesday, when President Obama talks about his wartime accomplishments during the State of the Union address, Congress will have to admit that its role has been reduced to the same part it plays during the president’s big speech. These days, when it comes to authorizing war, Congress generally sits there silently, except for the occasional clapping. And we do the same at home.
Last year, I met with senior Pentagon officials to discuss the many tough issues emerging from our growing use of robots in war. One of them asked, “So, who then is thinking about all this stuff?”
America’s founding fathers may not have been able to imagine robotic drones, but they did provide an answer. The Constitution did not leave war, no matter how it is waged, to the executive branch alone.
In a democracy, it is an issue for all of us.
Peter W. Singer is the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution and author of “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”
Jan 26, 2012
They kill without warning, are comparatively cheap, risk no American lives, and produce triumphant headlines. Over the last three years, drone strikes have quietly become the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against terrorists.
Since taking office, President Barack Obama has unleashed five times as many drone strikes as George W. Bush authorized in his second term in the White House. He has transformed drone attacks from a rarely used tactic that killed dozens each year to a twice-weekly onslaught that killed more than 1,000 people in Pakistan in 2010. Last year, American drone strikes spread to Somalia and Libya as well.
In the wake of the troubled, trillion-dollar American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes are a talisman in Washington. To cash-strapped officials, drones eliminate the United States’ enemies at little human, political, or financial cost.
The sweeping use of drone strikes in Pakistan, though, has created unprecedented anti-American sentiment in that country. While U.S. intelligence officials claim that only a handful of civilians have died in drone attacks, the vast majority of Pakistanis believe thousands have perished. Last year, the Pakistani government apparently blocked American drone strikes after tensions escalated between the two governments.
After a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in January and American commandos killed Osama bin Laden in March, there were no drone strikes there for weeks at a time. In November, drone strikes stopped again after an American airstrike killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the border with Afghanistan. As of late December, there had been no strikes in Pakistan for six weeks, the longest pause since 2008, and a glaring example of the limitations of drone warfare.
My perspective on drones is an unusual one. In November 2008, the Afghan Taliban kidnapped two Afghan colleagues and me outside Kabul and ferried us to the tribal areas of Pakistan. For the next seven months, we were held captive in North and South Waziristan, the focus of the vast majority of American drone strikes during that period. In June 2009, we escaped. Several months later, I wrote about the experience in a series of articles for the New York Times, my employer at the time.
Throughout our captivity, American drones were a frequent presence in the skies above North and South Waziristan. Unmanned, propeller-driven aircraft, they sounded like a small plane – a Piper Cub or Cessna-circling overhead. Dark specks in a blue sky, they could be spotted and tracked with the naked eye. Our guards studied their flight patterns for indications of when they might strike. When two drones appeared overhead they thought an attack was imminent. Sometimes it was, sometimes it was not.
The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death. Drones fire missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound. A drone’s victim never hears the missile that kills him.
Our Afghan and Pakistani Taliban guards despised the drones and disparaged them as a cowardly way for America to wage war. The 2009 surge in drone attacks in Pakistan prompted our guards to hate Obama even more than they hated Bush.
The most difficult day of our captivity was March 25, 2009. Late that afternoon, a drone attack occurred just outside our house in Makeen, South Waziristan. Missiles fired by an American drone had struck dozens of yards away. After chunks of mud and bits of shrapnel landed in our courtyard. Our guards hustled me down a hillside and ordered me to get inside a station wagon. They told me to lie down, place a scarf over my face, and say nothing. We all knew that if local militants enraged by the attack learned an American prisoner was in the area, I would be killed. As I lay in the car, I heard militants shout with fury as they collected their dead. A woman wailed somewhere in the distance. I silently recited the Lord’s Prayer.
After 15 minutes, the guards took me back to our house and explained what had happened. Missiles from American drones had struck two cars, they said, killing seven Arab militants and local Taliban fighters. Later, I learned that one of our guards suggested I be taken to the site of the attack and ritually beheaded. The chief guard overruled him.
The strikes fueled a vicious paranoia among the Taliban. For months, our guards told us of civilians being rounded up, accused of working as American spies and hung in local markets. Immediately after that attack in South Waziristan, a feverish hunt began for a local spy who the Taliban were convinced had somehow secretly guided the Americans to the two cars.
Several days after the strike, our guards told us foreign militants had arrested a local man and accused him of guiding the drones. After the jihadists disemboweled the villager and chopped off his leg, he « confessed » to being an American spy, they said. Then the militants decapitated the man and hung his corpse in the local bazaar as a warning.
My time in captivity filled me with enormous sympathy for the Pakistani civilians trapped between the deranged Taliban and ruthless American technology. They inhabit a hell on earth in the tribal areas. Both sides abuse them. I am convinced Taliban claims that only civilians die in drone strikes are false, as are American claims that only militants do. Drone strikes are not a silver bullet against militancy, nor are they a wanton practice that fells only civilians. They weaken militant groups without eliminating them.
During my time in the tribal areas, it was clear that drone strikes disrupted militant operations. Taliban commanders frequently changed vehicles and moved with few bodyguards to mask their identities. Afghan, Pakistani, and foreign Taliban avoided gathering in large numbers. The training of suicide bombers and roadside bomb makers was carried out in small groups to avoid detection.
Altogether, 22 drone strikes killed at least 76 militants and 41 civilians in North and South Waziristan during our seven months in captivity, according to news reports. Some strikes clearly succeeded. Our guards reacted with fury, for example, when Uzbek bomb makers they knew were killed in a drone strike. They also showed my Afghan colleagues the graves of children they said died in strikes.
It is impossible for journalists, human rights groups, or outside investigators to definitively determine the ratio of civilians to militants killed by American drones. The United States refuses to release details or publicly acknowledge the attacks, which they insist are classified. Militants, meanwhile, refuse to allow unfettered access to the area.
The strikes kill senior leaders and weaken Al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban, but militants use exaggerated reports of civilian deaths to recruit volunteers and stoke anti-Americanism. I believe the drones create a stalemate between militant groups and U.S. intelligence agencies.
While drones are seen as a triumph of American technology in the United States, they provoke intense public anger in Pakistan. Exaggerated Taliban claims of civilian deaths are widely believed by the Pakistanis, who see the strikes as a flagrant violation of the United States’ purported support for human rights. Analysts believe that killing a senior militant in a drone strike is a tactical victory but a loss over the long term because it weakens public support for an American-backed crackdown on militancy in Pakistan, which many analysts think is essential.
« In the short term, it puts (the militants) on the back foot, » a former United Nations official in the region who spoke on condition of anonymity told me. « In the overall community, it’s devastating. »
Worsening the problem, the U.S. has allowed the Pakistani military to falsely claim that it has no control over the drone strikes. American drones operate out of Pakistani air force bases with the permission of Pakistani forces, yet the Pakistani public is told that a foreign power is carrying out unilateral attacks inside their country and violating their sovereignty.
Pakistan is not the only country experiencing drone attacks. Since 2001, the United States has carried out drone strikes in five other countries – Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Somalia. In Libya, the American military carried out 146 drone strikes during NATO’s seven-month bombing campaign against the Gaddafi regime. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the CIA and the American military do not disclose the number of attacks, but a senior American military official put the number at « dozens » since 2001.
The most alarming pattern has emerged in Yemen and Somalia. The exact number of strikes in both countries is unknown. Local media in Yemen report strikes as often as once a week, but American officials decline to confirm that.
On September 30, 2011, a drone flying over Yemen set a new precedent. Without a trial or any public court proceeding, the United States government killed two American citizens, Anwar Al Awlaki and Samir Khan. The target of the attack was Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Yemeni-American whose charismatic preaching inspired terrorist attacks around the world, including the 2009 killing of 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. Civil liberties groups argued that a dangerous new threshold had been crossed. For the first time in American history, the United States had executed two of its citizens without trial.
The Obama Administration cited a secret Justice Department memorandum as justification for the attack. Its authors contended that Awlaki’s killing was legal due to his role in attacks on the United States and his presence in an area where American forces could not easily capture him. The administration declined to publicly release the full document.
Many experts insist a new approach to drones is desperately needed. Strikes should continue, they say, but in a vastly different manner. Among the changes they suggest: The U.S. must end its absurd practice of refusing to publicly acknowledge attacks. Many analysts also believe Washington should accede to longstanding demands from the Pakistani, Afghan, and other local governments for more control over the use of drones. Their reasoning is simple: Along with the United States, local officials will then bear the burden of building local public support for drone strikes.
« They have asked for sharing the responsibility, but also means sharing the technology, » Vali Nasr, a Tufts University professor and former senior Obama Administration adviser on Pakistan, told me. « We have resisted that, but the benefit is that you give the local government ownership. »
For all their shortcomings, drones do present a tempting though far from perfect martial option. Drones can reach jihadists in remote mountains and deserts inaccessible to American and local troops. They have taken out top militants, such as the Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who was responsible for the killing of thousands of Pakistani civilians in suicide bombings. And they have slowed the training of suicide bombers and roadside bomb makers, most of whose victims are innocent Afghan and Pakistani bystanders, not American troops.
But drones alone are not the answer. Over the long term, it will be moderate Muslims who defeat militancy, not technology.
Why President Obama’s kill list controversy is only good news for his reelection campaign.
Michael A. Cohen
June 6, 2012
Last week, two blockbuster New York Times stories cast perhaps the most unfavorable light on President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy performance since he took office. First, there was the revelation that Obama maintains a « kill list » of potential al Qaeda targets and signs off personally on major drone strikes in the continuing global war on terror. While Obama’s involvement suggests a certain level of rigor in target selection, the article also highlighted the fact that the president is ordering military strikes, including against U.S. citizens, without any congressional or judicial oversight.
Next came the revelation that under Obama’s presidency the United States has not only continued but ramped up a de facto war with Iran, with cybertools intended to disrupt Iran’s efforts to create a nuclear weapon.
Both stories speak to the lack of transparency in the Obama White House on matters of national security — as well as to the president’s somewhat promiscuous use of force against declared and undeclared enemies of the United States. But if one puts aside the many good reasons to be concerned about such policies on legal and moral grounds, it’s highly unlikely that Obama will be hurt politically by these revelations: if anything, quite the opposite. While some members of the president’s own party might be offended by Obama’s actions, the great majority of Americans seem blithely unconcerned. The stories will, in fact, neutralize Republican attack lines and bolster the president’s already strong public ratings on national security. In a country that still maintains ill will toward Iran for the hostage crisis 30-plus years ago and fears the potential machinations of jihadi terrorists, Obama’s actions are political winners.
To understand why the existence of a presidential kill list won’t do much to dent Obama’s strong foreign-policy standing, it’s important to remember that Americans don’t just like drone warfare — they love it. A Washington Post poll this February found that 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy. (It’s hard to think of anything that 83 percent of Americans agree on these days.) In addition, a whopping 77 percent of liberal Democrats support the use of drones — and 65 percent are fine with missile strikes against U.S. citizens, as was the case with the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed last September by a drone.
The popularity of unmanned vehicles is not difficult to understand. They’re cheap; they keep Americans out of harm’s way; and they kill « bad guys. » That unnamed and unseen civilians may be getting killed in the process or that the attacks stretch the outer limits of statutory law are of less concern. Indeed, rare is the American war where such legal and humanitarian niceties mattered much to the electorate.
And, in fairness to Obama, nothing about the drone war should be a major surprise to the American people. Throughout the 2008 campaign, then-Senator Obama was a loud, uncompromising advocate of ramping up cross-border drone attacks against al Qaeda in Pakistan. His August 2008 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention didn’t feature a passionate call to close the Guantánamo Bay prison or wind down the war on terror. Rather, Obama said this: « I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights. You know, John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives. »
Not a lot of subtlety there, but then again not much in the way of ambiguity about Obama’s plans as president.
As for cyberwarfare with Iran, this falls into a similar category as drones. Americans don’t like Iran; they are deeply concerned about Tehran getting a nuclear weapon and have demonstrated a surprising willingness to countenance a military solution to stopping Iran from getting a bomb. In fact, a March 2012 poll indicated that 53 percent of Americans support taking military action against Iran « even if it causes gasoline and fuel prices in the United States to go up. » And no one likes when gas prices go up.
Given those numbers, it’s not hard to imagine that an overwhelming majority of Americans would be fully supportive of a stealth cybercampaign as a cheap and efficient way to thwart Iran’s nuclear aspirations. That such a move might represent an act of war by the United States against Iran is again likely of peripheral concern.
If anything, it’s a mark in Obama’s political favor — a sign of his seriousness in keeping Americans safe from terrorists, from Iranians with nuclear weapons, or from other hyped-up potential threats to the United States. Beyond the immediate political benefit of proving Obama’s toughness, both New York Times stories have the added benefit of undercutting a key Republican critique. If there is any one issue on which Obama is somewhat vulnerable to GOP attack it is on Iran and the notion that he has not been tough enough in preventing that country from developing a bomb. Indeed, Republicans have been clamoring for increased covert action against Iran for months. Now, the cyberwar story demonstrates that Obama is doing precisely that. And the drones story is a further reminder that Obama has taken the fight to al Qaeda, which includes the killing of Osama bin Laden and now the terrorist group’s No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi. The White House can hardly go wrong in reminding Americans of that fact.
The final piece of the puzzle for the White House is that neither Obama’s drone war nor his secret war against Iran engages any serious partisan passions. Republicans are hardly going to be critical of kill lists or covert war against Iran. They might keep their praise to a minimum, but these are precisely the sorts of policies that Republicans have long supported. Even presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has been anything but consistent in his attacks on Obama, would find it difficult to hit Obama on these fronts. In reality, there is a disquieting political consensus in support of these policies.
If there is any place where Obama is likely to get grief, though, it is from his own liberal base. Since the revelations appeared in the New York Times, the outcry from the president’s left wing has been unremittingly harsh. But it’s hard to imagine that the Obama campaign in Chicago is worrying much about such criticism. That Obama’s national security policies upset liberals only further confirms his image as not your typical Jimmy Carter/Michael Dukakis/John Kerry liberal afraid to use American power. These, of course, are political canards, but potent ones — and they have clearly shaped the Obama administration’s thinking on foreign policy since the day he took office.
In the end, there are plenty of legitimate policy reasons for the course that Obama has set in fighting terrorism and restraining Iran’s nuclear program. But it doesn’t take a cynic to recognize there is a tangible political benefit here as well. After all, these stories weren’t leaked to the New York Times by accident.
Michael A. Cohen is a columnist for Foreign Policy’s Election 2012 channel and a fellow at the Century Foundation.
D.C. firm inks lucrative public-relations contract with Bahrain
As the Gulf monarchy cracks down on an international aid group, it hires Qorvis for $40,000-per-month P.R. job
Aug 8, 2011
D.C. firm inks lucrative public-relations contract with BahrainA Shiite Bahraini woman gestures as others shout anti-government slogans outside a public forum Saturday, July 23, 2011, outside a religious community center in Sanabis, Bahrain, denouncing the alleged destruction and vandalizing of Shiite mosques, community centers and cemeteries during a government crackdown on a largely Shiite spring uprising. Clerics who spoke during the meeting, blamed Saudi Arabia for targeting religious sites, because they allegedly distrust their own Shia minority and sent forces to help quell the Bahrain uprising. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)(Credit: AP)
Bahrain is in the news again, this time for what appears to be the comically evil persecution of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.
So, naturally, the ruling monarchy of the Gulf nation has hired a top Washington public relations firm to burnish (or attempt to salvage) its image, according to a new foreign agent registration filing. Qorvis Communications will be paid $40,000 per month, plus expenses, for the public relations work, according to a contract submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Here is the latest on the events in Bahrain, where the Sunni regime’s crackdown on a Shia protest movement is now focusing on prosecuting or harassing those — including doctors — who came to the aid of protesters back in the spring:
The trouble for the group — which is also known by its English name, Doctors Without Borders — started about a week ago. Activists say a young man who had been protesting in his village was hit in the head at close range by police firing a tear-gas canister.
The protester went to the MSF office in the capital, Manama. Owing to the severity of his injuries, an ambulance was called, and the patient was taken to the hospital. On July 28, the next day, 14 police vehicles pulled up to the MSF office. Authorities raided the building and reportedly took away furniture, medicine and patient files — and arrested the group’s local driver, Saeed Mahdi.
Now, the rented villa that used to house the MSF office is locked up and empty.
Qorvis distributed a statement to American journalists writing about the incident, with the Bahrain Health Ministry claiming that Doctors Without Borders “was operating an unlicensed medical center in a residential apartment building.”
Qorvis, which promises clients “integrated strategies to help you tell your story better,” did not immediately respond to a request for comment about its work for Bahrain. The contract is signed by Qorvis partner Matthew Lauer, who was previously a public diplomacy official in the Bush State Department and a spokesman for the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Earlier this year Huffington Post reported that several Qorvis partners had departed the firm because, in the words of one unnamed insider, “I just have trouble working with despotic dictators killing their own people.” Qorvis had previously worked for Bahrain through another PR