As I wrote last week, the Obama administration finally purported to defend its presidential assassination program aimed at American citizens, when Obama’s Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter, offered patently misleading claims to justify it. Yesterday, Newsweek‘s Michael Isikoff posed several good questions to Leiter about this program and the “War on Terror” generally — several of which are themes raised often here — and Leiter’s responses compellingly illustrate the utter illogic and counter-productive nature of our Terrorism and war policies.
First, Isikoff noted that CIA Director Leon Panetta said that there are at most 100 Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan — which led Fareed Zakaria, with great understatement, to suggest that our nine-year war there seemed “disproportionate” to the ostensible problem — and then asked Leiter how many Al Qaeda members are in Pakistan:
Leiter: I think [CIA director] Leon Panetta said on Sunday, and I agree with him, that in Afghanistan, you have a certain number, a relatively small number, 50 to 100. I think we have in Pakistan a larger number.
Q: How many?
Leiter: Upwards –more than 300, I would say.
So between Afghanistan and Paksitan combined, there are a few hundred Al Qeada members total. All of this ongoing war and those hundreds of billions of dollars spent and those deaths and the decade of occupation, and those bombings and shootings and drone attacks and lawless prisons and habeas-stripping court precedents: it’s all (ostensibly) for a few hundred extremists total hiding in remote tribal areas. A few hundred. Making matters so much worse is this:
Q: Isn’t it true that in almost every one of the big cases where there’s been attempted attacks on the U.S., the individuals involved — Faisal Shahzad, Najibullah Zazi — have said they were motivated to go abroad to learn how to attack the United States by the [military] actions we are taking now in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to try to defeat Al Qaeda there?
Leiter: Well I certainly will not try to argue that some of our actions have not led to some people being radicalized. I think that’s a given . . . .That doesn’t mean you don’t do it. That means you craft a fuller strategy to explain why you’re doing that and try to minimize the likelihood that individuals are going to be radicalized.
Actually, the recent attempted Terrorists referenced by Isikoff have said they were motivated by more than just our actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan; several have cited our attack on Iraq, our support for Israeli aggression, lawless prisons and torture. Still, not only are we engaged in a nine-year-and-counting, highly destructive war and bombing campaign in that region all for a few hundred fighters, but Leiter concedes (as has been recognized by the U.S. Government for years) that those actions have the opposite effect of what is supposedly intended: namely, these actions are what motivate so much of the very Terrorism (especially the recent Terrorism) that is cited to justify those policies.
Worse still, not only is our policy of endless war wildly disproprionate and counter-productive, but it provides the pretext for endless civil liberties abuses. Here is what Leiter boasts after being asked about the Obama administration’s targeting of U.S. citizens for assassination who have been charged with nothing: ”Just to be clear, the U.S. government through the Department of Defense goes out and attempts to target and kill people, a lot of people, who haven’t been indicted.” Indeed it does. And then Isikoff asked him about the extreme contradiction of the Democratic Party which I’ve raised over and over in every forum I could:
Q. When the Bush administration declared Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen, an enemy combatant, stripped him of all his legal rights, and threw him in a military brig, there was an enormous outcry from the civil liberties community. Here, the Obama administration is going one better than that; they’re saying, “We can kill this guy. We can take him out.” And there’s been very little public debate about how that decision was made. Doesn’t the government at least owe a [fuller] explanation of how it’s reaching these decisions?
Leiter: I absolutely agree with you. These are tough issues that require a full and open debate. That may not mean there’s a full and open debate about an individual . . . because there are sensitive sources and methods involved. . . . But I will tell you from my perspective as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, if someone like Anwar al-Awlaki is responsible for part of an operation to kill more than 300 people over the city of Detroit, I think it would be wholly irresponsible . . . not to at least think about and potentially direct all elements of national power to try to defend the American people.
In other words: when we decide that an American citizen is Guilty of Terrorism, there is no need for a trial, or due process, or even any public presentment of evidence. It suffices that we have concluded this in secret, with no checks or external review. Once we decide that, the death penalty is imposed and we will execute it ourselves. We are literally Judge, Jury and Executioner. And, despite the fact that we have been continuously wrong in our accusations of Terrorism and have even knowingly imprisoned innocent people, you’ll just take our word for it, on blind faith, that the citizen we want to kill is really an Evil Terrorist. Yes, it’s true that you refused to accept that same rationale when the Bush administration used it merely to eavesdrop on or detain American citizens — in fact, you screeched that those less extreme policies were tyranny and a shredding of the Constitution when they did it — but you should nonetheless accept this mentality when we use it to murder your fellow citizens who have never even been charged with any crime.
And that seems to be fine with our political class. All because there are a few hundred people hiding in caves in remote tribal areas who are really, really Scary: who will get you if don’t acquiesce to endless war, the transfer of enormous amounts of money to fight those wars, and the most unlimited and unchecked government powers imaginable. And even when they come right out and say that this is all about nothing more than a few hundred people — many of whom are motivated by the very violence we’re perpetrating — it changes very little. Fear is an extremely potent motivating force, overwhelming all reason and skepticism of power. That’s why political leaders — in all eras and all places — like it and use it so much.
* * * * *
On a related note: this scheming email exchange between David Petraeus and neocon Max Boot — apparently disclosed by Petraeus by mistake — is revealing in many ways.