Here’s the transcript. I defy you to tell me what the point of the speech is. The reaction among conservative twitterati is nearly unanimous: The speech is a distraction, designed to knock Scandalmania off the front page. I disagree, just because … there’s nothing here that’s distracting. He’s offering a robust defense of drone warfare to a public that already accepts it. The speech is really just an unusually exhaustive compendium of the foreign-policy establishment’s favorite counterterror bromides. Foreign Policy magazine has a Cliff’s Notes version of the four major takeaways, but none of them are actually major. He wants to close Gitmo, which we knew; he kinda likes the idea of independent oversight on drone strikes but maybe not too much, which we could have guessed; he wants to codify drone practices to make sure they’re used as narrowly as possible, but an Obama official couldn’t tell FP how that differs from the current policy; oh, and he thinks it’s time to stop thinking of this as a “boundless” global war on terror and start thinking in terms of discrete actions, which is semantic nonsense. No one, George Bush included, has done more to make the war on terror more “global” and “boundless” than The One. The whole story of his counterterror strategy from the beginning has been to extend operations to countries like Yemen and Libya and who knows where else special forces are now currently operating. His goal here, to the extent there was any goal at all, was to get the public to see him as someone who’s shrinking and narrowing the WoT when his actions indicate the opposite.
A few key passages. Here he is explaining that Pakistanis were enraged by having American boots on the ground during the Bin Laden raid, which is why we need to focus more on … drone strikes, which also enrage Pakistanis. Wait, what?
To put it another way, our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm. The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture, although our preference, was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces – but also depended on some luck. And even then, the cost to our relationship with Pakistan – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.
It is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.
Here’s his response to Rand Paul’s filibuster:
This week, I authorized the declassification of this action, and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes, to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims. 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. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.
But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. 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.
That’s who Anwar Awlaki was – he was continuously trying to kill people.
So there you go: No summary executions of American citizens unless you’re plotting terror and you can’t be captured, which is the same policy that was stated in the DOJ’s “white paper” on targeting Awlaki months ago. Nothing new here, unless you consider him ruling out drone strikes on U.S. soil as news. That was always implied by the white paper’s criteria that a target be beyond the reach of capture, though. If you’re on American soil, almost by definition you’re in a position to be captured. Also, note that Alwaki’s teenaged son, who was killed incidentally while in the presence of another jihadi who was being targeted, fits none of the above criteria. He wasn’t plotting and he certainly didn’t get due process. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many other drone victims have been, which is one of the main reasons Pakistanis aren’t any more pro-Predator than they are pro-military raid.
Finally, I suspect this bit is designed to give him a little cover if/when the public starts demanding to know why he hasn’t sent in troops to Libya to grab the five Benghazi suspects the feds have identified:
Where foreign governments cannot or will not effectively stop terrorism in their territory, the primary alternative to targeted, lethal action is the use of conventional military options. As I’ve said, even small Special Operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies; unleash a torrent of unintended consequences; are difficult to contain; and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict. So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars…
To repeat, as a matter of policy, the preference of the United States is to capture terrorist suspects. When we do detain a suspect, we interrogate them. And if the suspect can be prosecuted, we decide whether to try him in a civilian court or a Military Commission. During the past decade, the vast majority of those detained by our military were captured on the battlefield. In Iraq, we turned over thousands of prisoners as we ended the war. In Afghanistan, we have transitioned detention facilities to the Afghans, as part of the process of restoring Afghan sovereignty. So we bring law of war detention to an end, and we are committed to prosecuting terrorists whenever we can.
You don’t want to drone the Benghazi five because we’re “committed to prosecuting terrorists whenever we can” and because the friendly-ish Libyan government might be able to help us capture them instead. On the other hand, capture is a verrrrry risky proposition. So for the moment we’re sitting tight and waiting while prosecutors build a case, a.k.a. while Obama figures out a way to proceed that’ll involve the least amount of risk.
Anyway, “distraction” over. If people are still talking about the speech six hours from now, I’ll be shocked. While we wait to find out, via Mediaite, here’s Code Pink making The One’s week even more unpleasant than it already was. To borrow a line made famous by his former pastor, in light of Obama’s history with the group, consider this a case of the chickens having come home to roost.