Reacting to Obama’s Counterterrorism Speech

It’s been a big week in national security discussions.

For one thing, the Justice Department finally formally admitted something most of us already knew: that the U.S. killed four of its own citizens in drone strikes, although Attorney General Eric Holder said only one of them, Anwar al-Awlaki, was actually a target.

That doesn’t exactly speak well of the administration’s continued insistence that the precision of drone strikes keeps the number of civilian casualties low. I mean, there aren’t that many Americans running around the areas where we use drones in the first place, and we still managed to kill three we supposedly were not intentionally targeting. So if we’re killing Americans we didn’t intentionally target, it’s a pretty fair bet to say that we’re also killing Yemenis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Somalis, and others that we aren’t intentionally targeting either. By some counts, we are killing 50 civilians for every 1 terrorist we kill with a drone strike, and there are reports that the CIA uses “double tap” strikes, meaning they launch a second missile when emergency responders come to the scene of the initial drone strike.

It’s hard to get an exact count on civilian deaths due to drone strikes, but almost every independent organization trying to track those numbers places the count higher than the administration does.

This is the background leading up to the speech President Obama gave yesterday, in which he addressed the future of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and in particular, drone strikes and Guantanamo Bay prison.


The key point Obama was striving to make in his speech yesterday was that while in some form the GWOT must continue, it is also necessary to “change its course” because “the threat has shifted and evolved.”

As usual, the speech itself was pretty great. There aren’t many public figures who can turn a phrase like Barack Obama, or who can match his gravitas, all the while appearing very personable. And throughout the speech, I at times found myself wanting to nod along, because of how very reasonable it all seemed.

But stepping back, looking at my notes, and reading through other articles and reports on the GWOT and drone strikes, it was impossible to escape the fact that the reality of our policies do not match the lofty ideas presented in yesterday’s speech.

I agree with statements like “No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war,” and definitely that “There can be no complete victory in the war on terror,” and also that “the threat we face today is more diffuse” than the threat of another attack on the scale of 9/11.

But some of the statements made in defense of the drone program (and more broadly, the concept of targeted killings) definitely did not match the facts of the administration’s conduct.

One quote that struck me in particular was that “the use of drones is heavily constrained” and that the White House has continuously sought to build in more oversight. This is in stark contrast to the continued policy the administration has had of first denying the existence of the drone program when it was inconvenient, and problems such as signature strikes, which allow for targeting individuals of unknown identities based on observed patterns of “suspicious behavior,” loose definitions of “combatants,” and the existence of multiple overlapping, but not identical “kill lists” within the Defense Department, JSOC, and the CIA. For a little background, check my previous post about drone strikes.

So far from working for constant, consistent oversight of the targeted killing program, this administration (much like the one before it) has instead invoked the State Secrecy privilege to avoid revealing any details of the program, despite the fact that they also leaked reports of successful attacks on extremists. And it is still unclear whether or not transparency will increase moving forward. In fact, while Obama touted the fact that he had just signed new policy guidelines to curb potential abuse of the drone program, those guidelines remain classified.

And these remarks come a week after a Defense Department official stated that the drone strike policies currently in place don’t need to change. So, that doesn’t exactly bode well.

Another glaring inconsistency: in this speech, President Obama referred repeatedly to the strong preference to capture, interrogate, and try militants over killing them. But this administration has killed far more militant suspects than it has captured.

That is in part due to the great unpopularity of the Guantanamo Bay Prison, which will be the subject of a special bonus post tomorrow, since I clearly have a lot of feelings about this speech.


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