The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq compelled the United States to boost the speed and accuracy with which it targets terrorists. But it was not until the Obama administration that U.S. technology and intelligence caught up with the need to take down terrorist networks rather than just individual leaders. As a result, there have been three to six times more drone strikes under Obama than under Bush.
While the use of drone warfare has come of age under Obama, whether he comes to be defined by this weapon is very much a political question. The tool kit of the war on terror includes far more than armed drones, but for a modern president, perception is reality. Drone strikes generate enormous controversy. For some, even the nomination of John Brennan — the public face of the administration’s drone program — to run the CIA indicates the centrality of drones to an “Obama Doctrine.”
In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Brennan emphasized his commitment to Congress’s oversight of overt and covert programs. It will remain critical for him and the White House to continue to articulate their overall approach to combating terrorism, making the case that drones are part of the strategy, not a substitute for it.
Of course, it’s no small irony that the candidate who once railed against the Bush administration’s so-called imperial presidency in the war on terror now finds himself under attack by his own base (and a few on the right) for his “secret” program of targeted killings. However, there is nothing like reality—in this case, the global, nebulous network of al Qaeda and allied terrorists—to bring home to a sitting president his fundamental constitutional responsibility to protect the lives and property of his fellow citizens.
The further irony is that while the Justice Department argues that a targeted killing can only take place when the targeted person poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” it so broadens the concept that it concludes that the government need not have “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. person and interests will take place in the immediate future”—only a pattern of plotting such attacks. Given the spotty past record of the intelligence community in actually knowing when a specific terrorist plot is underway, this redefining of “imminent” is reasonable enough—although it can’t help but remind folks of the similar logic behind the Bush administration’s justification for preemptive war.
This administration, while vowing transparency and accountability, has actually become ever more secretive and punitive: stamping “classified” on everything in sight, pursuing whistle-blowers as never before, and prosecuting journalists for publishing leaked information.
All in the name of national security, the hammer of choice.
The real threat to national security is a government operating in secret and accountable to no one, with watchdogs that are too willing to muzzle themselves…
What’s missing in the dark and ever-expanding world of drone warfare is a big helping of accountability, served up in the bright light of day.
ASSANGE: Look, we’ve risen to a situation, or collapsed to a situation in the United States now where you can be killed by someone in the White House, President on down, for completely arbitrary reasons. You won’t know that you’re on the kill list until you’re dead. And lawyers, if you have a suspicion that you might be on this kill list, they can’t even represent you. That was a case for our lawyers this (?) for constitutional rights trying to represent Anwar al-Awlaki. He was discovered to be on that kill list, and his son wasn’t even allowed to be his lawyer because he was part of a proscribed organization.
So, that’s a, I can’t see a greater collapse when the executive can kill its own citizens, arbitrarily, at will, in secret, without any of the decision-making becoming public, without even the rules of procedure, without even the law behind this being public.
So, that’s why we need organizations like WikiLeaks, and I encourage anyone in the White House that has access to those rules and procedures, walk them on over to us. We’ll keep you secret and reveal it to the public.
This brings us, finally, to the last big-picture point: There is abundant opportunity in Obama’s hypocrisy. For a dozen years, we have engaged in heated debates about Bush counterterrorism practices. After four years of watching Obama enthusiastically adopt what he once condemned, we now know Bush detractors were animated by politics, not conviction. We now know that, across a broad spectrum of Obama progressives and national-security conservatives, there is consensus about an aggressive counterterrorism model.
Though neither the civilian nor the military justice system is a comfortable fit for modern international terrorism, we have wasted years slamming the square peg into these round holes. Instead, we should have been designing a new, hybrid legal framework for the modern realities of international terrorism: the need to detain jihadists who cannot be tried under civilian due-process standards; the need effectively to interrogate jihadist prisoners to whom Geneva Convention protections for honorable combatants do not apply; the need to conduct searching, rapid-fire cross-border surveillance; the need to capture and sometimes kill enemy operatives who lurk in the shadows, far from traditional battlefields — some of whom will inevitably be American citizens; the need to revise the AUMF to reflect the current state of the war and remove uncertainty — or illegitimacy — in the determination of who qualifies as an enemy combatant.
For many years, I have argued that we need a new national-security court to deal with the unique legal challenges of a war against transnational terrorists. If anything, the need is more urgent now than ever. No matter what the future of counterterrorism is, though, there needs to be congressional buy-in. President Bush could never deliver that: Democrats were too determined to smear for political purposes the strategies they abruptly embraced once they were accountable for the nation’s security. But President Obama could do it — he could deliver plenty of Democrats. Together with the strong Republican support that is guaranteed, we could very quickly have an enduring, constitutionally sound counterterrorism framework. We could craft legislation that provides broad executive discretion but avoids the dangerous excesses of the Justice Department white paper.
All President Obama has to do is lead.
BILL MAHER, HOST OF “REAL TIME” ON HBO: The Obama administration has been heavily targeting whistleblowers — true — and information activists. What can we do to hold the government accountable for this harsh crackdown?…
TINA BROWN, NEWSWEEK: I mean, he’d be impeached by now for drones, if he was George W. Bush.
Maher summed up the drone policy as “we will fry anyone in the world with our flying killer robots because someone we know wrote it down on a piece of paper, and therefore it’s legal.” He clarified that he’s not completely against this line of thinking, but in spite of the fact that Obama is the “swell guy” and Bush was the “dumb oaf,” he said it’s essentially the same “we’re good, they’re bad” policy.