President Obama managed to deliver a speech on Thursday in many ways reminiscent of the rhetoric employed by candidate Obama, condemning the recklessness of the previous administration, hailing the rule of law, and citing James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
But whereas Obama made the right sounds, history shows his words fall far short, and often contradict, his actions as president. When he wasn’t using such rhetoric, he was dodging the truth on issues including drone warfare, Guantanamo Bay and indefinite detention, the AUMF, and how to prevent terrorism so as to not always be fighting it.
The Drone War
According to the president, when the option of “detention and prosecution of terrorists…is foreclosed” because “they take refuge in remote tribal regions” where “the state lacks the capacity or will to take action,” his administration chooses to secretly use drones to bomb targets as opposed to deploying boots on the ground to apprehend the suspects.
We’ve heard this justification for the drone war before, but there are two main problems to start with. First, this explanation simply assumes the validity of the targeting process. It is quite plainly inconsistent with the rule of law for the unchallenged executive branch accusations against mostly unnamed suspects to be sufficient for a death warrant by covert assassination.
As Rosa Brooks, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, told a Senate committee last month, “When a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
According to reports, of the 3,000-4,000 people killed in drone attacks under Obama, less than 2 percent were described by the government’s own classified documents as senior members of al-Qaeda. The rest were either mid-level operatives, unidentified clumps of people killed in “signature strikes,” or civilians.
Secondly, just because President Obama identifies some logistical obstacles in apprehending mere suspects doesn’t give him the right to bypass the rule of law. What limited legal restrictions on Executive power we do have are not measly options for him to either take or not. They aren’t suggestions. They are the law.
Obama also mentioned his decision this week to declassify the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, with the familiar justifications. But he papered over the killing of three other American citizens, including Alwaki’s 16-year old son. He professed respect for due process but didn’t say a word about what kind of accountability he should be subject to for the killings, accidental or otherwise, of four Americans.
The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force
But “America’s actions are legal,” Obama insisted. “We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”
This is another dubious claim.
The AUMF empowered the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”
In Senate hearings last week, top Pentagon lawyer Robert Taylor kept using the words “associated forces” to justify the legality of the drone war under the 2001 AUMF. Until Senator Angus King of Maine told him those words never appear in the text of the AUMF.
“You guys have invented this term, associated forces, that’s nowhere in this document,” King said. “It’s the justification for everything, and it renders the war powers of Congress null and void.”
Even as Obama used the AUMF to justify his dramatic expansion of the drone war, he warned of its dangers:
The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
I don’t think the President can have it both ways here. Either the AUMF is an overly expansive blank check for perpetual war, or it is the foremost legal instrument of the completely lawful drone war. Which is it?
It will be interesting to see in the near future if President Obama follows up on his pledge to “refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate,” or whether it will become another unfulfilled promise, like closing Guantanamo Bay within one year of his election in 2009.
On The Scott Horton Show yesterday, Marcy Wheeler discussed the ACLU’s lawsuit – filed on behalf of Antiwar.com – against the FBI for unwarranted surveillance; the FBI memo stating Antiwar.com might be “a threat to national security” and working “on behalf of a foreign power;” Justin Raimondo’s controversial columns after 9/11 about Urban Moving Systems and Israeli “art students” that may have piqued the FBI’s interest; the loss of major donors who worried about being investigated themselves; and evidence that the FBI thinks anti-Zionism is criminal behavior.
I have to thank Marcy for her analysis of the FBI documents when they came out, she is able to explain complex government files in a way that regular folk (like me) can understand. Without Marcy, I am not sure there would be a lawsuit.
“It’s terribly important that we see the horrors of war, because then we know what’s happening in our names,” Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney tells ReasonTV.
“If that stuff is kept secret, then we’re on our way to tyranny.”
In this ReasonTV interview, Gibney talks about Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, transparency and the horrors of the U.S. national security state.
There are some high expectations for Obama’s speech on national security and drone policy today. But, as I wrote yesterday, the president is unlikely to account for the most damning aspects of the drone war, like its illegality and disregard for innocent human life.
For example, the material covered in Mirza Shahzad Akbar’s New York Times Op-Ed will surely be absent from the address…
A few days after [Obama's] inaugural address, a C.I.A.-operated drone dropped Hellfire missiles on Fahim Qureishi’s home in North Waziristan, killing seven of his family members and severely injuring Fahim. He was just 13 years old and left with only one eye, and shrapnel in his stomach.
There was no militant present. A recent book revealed that Mr. Obama was informed about the erroneous target but still did not offer any form of redress, because in 2009, the United States did not acknowledge the existence of its own drone program in Pakistan.
Sadaullah Wazir was another victim of hope and change. His house in North Waziristan was targeted on Sept. 7, 2009. The strike killed four members of his family. Sadaullah was 14 years old when it happened. A few days after the attack, he woke up in a Peshawar hospital to the news that both of his legs had to be amputated and he would never be able to walk again. He died last year, without receiving justice or even an apology. Once again, no militant was present or killed.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on drones at the National Defense University today. He is likely to tell his fellow Americans that drones are precise and effective at killing militants.
But his words will be little consolation for 8-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct. 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 p.m., a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.
Nabila doesn’t know who Mr. Obama is, or where the Hellfire missile that killed her grandmother came from. As she grows older, she will learn about the idea of justice. But how will she be able to grasp it if she herself has been denied this basic right?
America doesn’t talk about its victims, and never has.
Our longtime friend and columnist Charley Reese has died at the age of 76.
Charley’s columns were a regular feature in the early days of Antiwar.com.
Charley was a journalist for over 50 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 until they parted ways in 2001. His columns continued under King Features Syndicate. They became less frequent ten years ago and he finally stopped writing in 2008, due to his poor health.
He never shied away from controversial topics and always took the hard-core stance. He was a consistent opponent of US interventionism and proponent of individual liberty. He was a strong anti-racist and proponent of gay rights.
Charley is remembered by our readers. I have continued to get regular emails asking for his contact information and asking when his columns will return. Alas, they will not. We will all miss him.