by William Boardman
May 27, 2013
The United States uses
Reaper drones to kill people at a distance,
sometimes at random, sometimes Americans or children, and after a decade of
this practice, in the face of scattered popular protest, President Obama
gave a speech about it on May 23 that was preceded by waves of advance media
buzz that the President was going to change some of the policy in the global
war on terrorism.
Who in a sane state of mind would expect any change of policy when the
president gives a speech about counter-terrorism at the National Defense
In effect, two American administrations have followed the same pre-emptive
killing policy that can be summed up simply:
"Assassinating people prevents them from
attacking us, whether they want to or not, and it’s not up to us to
figure out what they want."
No administration official since 2001 has put it
quite that way, of course, but it is a fair summary of the country’s
fear-based endless war against an abstraction, terrorism, that is made more
palpable by the very actions taken to fight it.
Another way to summarize a dozen years of pre-emptive war is that the United
States is within its rights to defend itself against all enemies, real and
What Do You Call It When One
Man Decides Who Lives or Dies?
Since American terror policy is contradictory and semi-secret, it appears
In March 2012 on CNN, Attorney General Eris
Holder expressed the administration’s point of view in a manner suitable
to Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s "Through
the Looking Glass."
Here, rendered in the quasi-poetic form it
deserves, is Holder’s explanation of lethal drone strikes:
Some have called such operations
They are not. And the use of that loaded term is misplaced.
‘Assassinations’ are ‘unlawful killings.’
Here, for the reasons that I have given,
the US Government’s use of lethal force
in self-defense against a leader of al Qaeda
or an associated force
who presents an imminent threat of violent attack
would not be unlawful
and therefore would not violate
the executive order banning assassination…
* * *
In Holderworld, it is somehow not an
assassination to commit a killing that fits the widely accepted definition
of "assassination" as,
"the murder of a prominent person or
political figure by a surprise attack, usually for payment or political
reasons… An assassination may be prompted by religious, ideological,
political, or military motives…"
You Don’t Need Law When
There’s No Political Challenge
As Holder well knows, as does Obama, both being lawyers, there is no clear
constitutional, statutory, court precedent, or other legal grounding for
assassination by drone.
The only basis in law is untested legal
argument, some if which remains secret. But as both men know, the
assassination policy has solid grounding in both politics and psychology.
And so the President framed his counter-terrorism speech with 9/11, which is
as logical and useful as it is exceptional and misleading, telling his
audience falsely but with Humpty Dumpty mastery of words,
"And so our nation went to war."
That has been the delusional national consensus
since 2001, even though it’s not war in any constitutional, historic, or
But war justifies everything, at least for awhile. And that may be the
meaning behind Obama’s speech, a sense that time may be running out on the
"nation at war" meme, and perhaps it’s time for the clever leader to
get ahead of the politics and the psychology by at least seeming to change
course a little.
The President acknowledges much of the damage our self-chosen wars have done
to us at home and abroad. He ticks off government surveillance, torture,
secret prisons - but not renditions.
"And in some cases, I believe we compromised
our basic values."
Then he tried to sell us an inherent
"we stepped up the war against al Qaeda, but
also sought to change its course," by which he seemed to mean we stopped
torturing as may people and generally tried to break fewer domestic and
But on the other hand, we should still be
"our nation is still threatened by
terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston…"
He did not clarify when Benghazi became
part of "our nation."
At a Crossroads and
Choosing to go in All Four Directions?
The President rambled on in this contradictory fashion, warning the nation
"America is at a crossroads" and quoting
Madison that, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of
continual warfare - then assuring us that our war on terrorism would
"We must make decisions based not on fear," the President said,
suggesting that we need to understand the threat we face.
Then a short while later he added,
"that the scale of this threat closely
resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11."
"Most, though not all, of the terrorism we face is fueled by a common
ideology," Obama said, echoing the recent words of South Carolina
Senator Lindsey Graham: "the war against radical Islam, or terror, or
whatever description you like."
Contrary to a good many of his fellow Americans,
the President went on to assert that,
"the United States is not at war with
Then he used the magic language, defining
the enemy as "al Qaeda and its associated forces."
Given the limitations of the 2001 Authorization
to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of
9/11 attacks, the Pentagon has been using the catch-all "and its
associated forces" to argue the legality of doing whatever they want to
whomever they want, or just not interfering with the free hand of the CIA or
other clandestine forces.
Obama suggested that,
"we must define our effort not as a
boundless ‘global war on terror,’"
...and went on to offer no boundaries to our
willingness to attack whomever we define as an enemy in any part of the
Assassination by Drone
to Remain Presidential Prerogative
With regard to assassination by drone, the President claimed,
"our actions are effective… These strikes
have saved lives."
He offered no serious evidence to support either
claim, neither of which appears to be provable.
Amidst much vague reassurance about how drone strikes would be fewer, and
kill fewer innocents, he also made an unsupported claim that strains
"For me, and those in my chain of command,
these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by
the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting
in Afghanistan and Iraq."
To dispel the haunting, the President
immediately played the fear card again:
"To do nothing in the face of terrorist
networks would invite far more civilian casualties…"
Earlier in the day, the Obama Administration
admitted to killing four American citizens, and unnumbered others, without
any legal due process.
Yet in his speech he said,
"For the record, I do not believe it would
be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen
- with a drone, or a shotgun - without due process."
The President went on to discuss engaging with
the Muslim American community, being troubled intimidating reporters,
modifying the legal basis for continued war-making, and mitigating the
horrors of Guantanamo.
All these are issues he could have addressed at
any time during his presidency, and he offered no pressing reason for
addressing any of them now. Nor did he outline any clear new direction on
any of them.
Boiled down, the President’s speech signaled that he had noticed that there
were problems waging global war, that he would try to make it neater and
prettier, but that it would continue - be afraid.
The one apparent exception to the contradictory verbal soft talk was a
fleeting comment about three-quarters of the way through.
Without offering any analysis, or even any means
of doing this, he said:
"We must strengthen the opposition in Syria,
while isolating extremist elements - because the end of a tyrant must
not give way to the tyranny of terrorism."
This echoed Secretary of State John Kerry’s
comment in Jordan on May 22:
"In the event that we can’t find that way
forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate
Geneva 1 in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support
and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to
continue to be able to fight for the freedom of their country."
Now there’s something to be afraid of.
Obama Defends Drone Strikes But Says No Cure-All
May 23, 2013
On the defensive over a trio of controversies, President Barack Obama
refocused the debate Thursday with a speech laying out his administration's
rationale for the use of unmanned drone strikes against terrorism targets
Obama has given a speech - justifying and
outlining changes to the national defence policies of the United States. The
address is seen as an opening up of America's security policies.
Obama has discussed the legality of drone
strikes and the future of the Guantanamo prison.
Obama Announces Restrictions on Drone Strikes -
Pledges to Close Gitmo
May 23, 2013
President Barack Obama announced drastic changes to the United States’
counterterrorism operations Thursday, reforming the rules that guide
America’s drone program while also expediting the release of Guantanamo
The president spoke at the National Defense University in Washington, DC
Thursday afternoon to discuss those two issues in particular, weighing
in on a pair of topics that have increasingly attracted criticism to the
administration since Obama’s first term in office began more than four
When Mr. Obama entered the White House in 2009, he inherited a couple of
items from the
George W. Bush administration that are
widely cited today as the driving force behind anti-American sentiment
the US has continued to operate the
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba military prison to house more than 160 alleged
enemy combatants; and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or
drones, has increased exponentially under Obama’s leadership.
But although both the drone program and
Guantanamo Bay have existed for more than a decade, calls for reform on
both matters have increased severely in recent months. By many
estimates, thousands of women, children and other innocent victims have
been killed during a decade-long war dominated by drones.
Meanwhile, Gitmo inmates - nearly all of
them - remain committed to a hunger strike that has made the White House
the object of international embarrassment and prompted them to start
During Thursday’s address, Obama spoke in depth on both topics while
outlining changes to his administration’s counterterrorism operations as
the face of war changes more than a decade after the September 11, 2001
terrorist attacks prompted the invasion of Afghanistan.
"Make no mistake - our nation is still
threatened by terrorists," said Obama.
"From Benghazi to Boston we have been
tragically reminded of that truth, but we have to recognize that the
threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores
on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the
moment to ask ourselves hard questions about the nature of today’s
threats and how we should confront them."
Setting the course for a speech that at
times celebrated America’s counterterrorism practices while also
recognizing the necessity of revamping them, Obama said the US is at a
"must define the nature and scope of
this struggle or else it will define us."
"We have to make decisions based not on fear but on hard-earned
wisdom," he said.
One day earlier, US Attorney General Eric
Holder wrote Congress to inform them that Mr. Obama approved new
presidential guidelines for drone use.
Simply put, Holder explained that the
administration hopes to make it clear that their official policy
mandates that "lethal force should not be used when it is feasible to
capture a terrorist suspect."
On Thursday, Obama added that,
"America does not take strikes when we
have the ability to capture individual terrorists."
"Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute
them," said the president.
"America cannot take strikes wherever we
choose - our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and
respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to
punish individuals - we act against terrorists who pose a continuing
and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no
other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.
And before any strike is taken, there
must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -
the highest standard we can set."
In his address, Pres. Obama credited drones
with helping dismantle the core of al-Qaeda and even said the strikes
have prevented the loss of lives.
At the same time, however, the president
acknowledged that his administration is responsible for killing no fewer
than four US citizens with these attacks and potentially thousands of
"It is a hard fact that US strikes have
resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars,"
"For the families of those civilians, no
words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those
in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we
live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have
occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq."
In order to bring about more accountability
to America’s actions overseas, Obama admitted to approving of the
guidelines Holder hinted at one day earlier, shaping the way America
will conduct its drone war overseas.
"In the Afghan war theater, we must
support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of
2014," he said.
"That means we will continue to take
strikes against high value al-Qaeda targets, but also against forces
that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces.
However, by the end of 2014, we will no
longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we
have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned
But elsewhere during his address, Obama
defended the drone strikes and suggested that the United States’ use of
unmanned aerial vehicles has been instrumental in winning the war on
"Dozens of highly skilled al-Qaeda
commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off
the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted
international aviation, US transit systems, European cities and our
troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives,"
Last month, a Yemeni activist with ties to
the US testified before Congress as to drones being used in his own town
even when other counterterrorism options are on the table.
Speaking in Washington just days after a
drone blew up a small part of Wessab, Yemen, Farea al-Muslimi pleaded
with lawmakers to find another way to advance its war on terror.
"My understanding is that Hameed Meftah,
who is also known as Hameed al-Radmi, was the target of the drone
strike. Many people in Wessab know a-Radmi. Earlier on the night he
was killed, he was reportedly in the village meeting with the
general secretary of local councilors, the head of the local
A person in the village told me that al-Radmi
had also met with security and government officials at the security
headquarters just three days prior to the drone strike. Yemeni
officials easily could have found and arrested al-Radmi," he said.
"The people in my village wanted al-Radmi to be captured, so that
they could question him and find out what he was doing wrong so they
could put an end to it. They still don’t have an answer to that
question. Instead, all they have is the psychological fear and
terror that now occupies their souls.
They fear that their home or a
neighbor’s home could be bombed at any time by a US drone," al-Muslimi
Although Holder wrote in his letter that
four US citizens were killed with drones between 2009 and 2011, he
admitted that three of those victims - ages 16, 21 and 30 - were never
meant to be killed.
Later, the attorney general explained that
the September 2011 drone strike use to target suspected terrorist Anwar
al-Awlaki was subjected to intense judicial scrutiny before being
ordered because it involved using lethal force against a US citizen
Because al-Awlaki allegedly posed an
immediate threat to the lives of Americans, Holder said his killing was
"Al-Awlaki repeatedly made clear his
intent to attack US persons and his hope that these attacks would
take American lives," wrote Holder.
"Based on this information, high-level
US government officials appropriately concluded that al-Awlaki posed
a continuing and imminent threat of violent attack against the
On Thursday, Obama weighed in further on the
2011 drone strike.
"For the record, I do not believe it
would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any US
citizen - with a drone, or a shotgun - without due process. Nor
should any president deploy armed drones over US soil," he said.
"But when a US citizen goes abroad to
wage war against America - and is actively plotting to kill US
citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are
in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot - his
citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting
down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team."
Obama concluded his address in Washington by
weighing in on the situation at Gitmo, where as many as 130 of the 166
inmates are currently participating in a hunger strike.
"The original premise for opening Gitmo
- that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention -
was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, Gitmo
has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the
rule of law.
Our allies won’t cooperate with us if
they think a terrorist will end up at Gitmo. During a time of budget
cuts, we spend $150 million each year to imprison 166 people -
almost $1 million per prisoner.
And the Department of Defense estimates
that we must spend another $200 million to keep Gitmo open at a time
when we are cutting investments in education and research here at
home," said Obama.
The president went on to say he’s recently
directed the Pentagon to designate a site where some of the inmates
currently held at Gitmo could be relocated, and revealed that he’s
lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen.
At least 88 of the 166 detainees at Gitmo
are Yemeni nationals, and 59 of them were approved to be transferred
from the prison four years ago.
Up until now, however, Pres. Obama has
refused to release Yemen natives from US custody, with his
administration citing potential security concerns as a reason for
continuously housing dozens of men, many of who have never been charged
with a crime, let alone convicted.
"Imagine a future - 10 years from now or
20 years from now - when the United States of America is still
holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of
land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current
situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a
hunger strike. Is that who we are?" he asked.
More than three-quarters of the detainees at
Gitmo have been on a hunger strike since February. The president has
repeatedly said this year that he wants to shut down the facility, but
allegedly congressional roadblocks have prevented him from doing so.
He campaigned on shutting down Guantanamo
before being elected in November 2008, and was interrupted no fewer than
four times during Thursday’s address by a female protester who demanded
the immediate closure of the detention facility.
"I’m willing to cut the young lady who
interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate
about," the president responded. "Is this who we are? Is that
something our fathers foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave
In the years since Obama campaigned on
closing Gitmo, he has repeatedly called on Congress to help make his
promise a reality.
On Thursday, he once again urged lawmakers
in Washington to act on his request.
"I have tried to close GTMO. I
transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed
restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring
detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United
States. These restrictions make no sense," he said.
At one point, Obama went off his script and
again acknowledged the cry from the crowd.
"The voice of that woman is worth paying
attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said.
And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But
these are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over
them is wrong," Obama said.
Last month, Yemeni detainee Samir Naji al
Hasan Moqbel told the New York Times that Gitmo was literally killing
"I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11
years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I
have never received a trial," he said.
"I could have been home years ago - no one seriously thinks I am a
threat - but still I am here," he wrote. "The only reason I am still
here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to
Yemen. This makes no sense. I am a human being, not a passport, and
I deserve to be treated like one."
"I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s
president do something, that is what I risk every day."