Four years ago, President Obama gave a seminal counterterrorism speech in front of the Constitution, arguing we “uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe.” Today, amid controversies over his administration’s killing of American citizens in drone strikes, efforts to break hunger strikes by Guantánamo Bay detainees who have long been cleared for transfer, and seizures of the call records of national security journalists, Obama tried to reclaim those cherished values in his fight against terror.
In a speech at the National Defense University, Obama tried to redefine that fight and at least rhetorically end the war. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’”
In the speech, Obama proposed a number of policies that would return us closer to the values. He directed his aides to consider proposals — like a drone court or an additional executive branch review — to add oversight to targeted killing. He instructed Eric Holder to review Department of Justice guidelines “governing investigations that involve reporters” by July 12 (the only deadline in the speech). He even argued for the use of more foreign assistance rather than just military force in combating terrorism, though suggested people in both parties opposed such assistance.
Obama also promised to “engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing“ and threatened to veto any proposal that expanded this war. Obama has failed to make good on such veto threats in the past, and he made no mention of the Iraq AUMF, which remains in force two and a half years after the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq. So it remains to be seen whether his stated commitment to rework the AUMF will survive the political difficulties it has not in the past.
Obama’s most substantive proposals recommitted to closing Guantánamo Bay, a commitment that seemed to arise out of a focus on his own legacy. “[H]istory will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,” he reflected. The president laid out the following plan:
I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system.
All of these proposals have been possible for the last four years (indeed, the State Department only got rid of its existing envoy to close Gitmo in January). Yet the constant concerns of the 102 Gitmo detainees hunger striking and a concern about legacy appears to have given Obama renewed urgency.
With this plan, Obama received applause from the audience.
The speech was weakest in its promise to reform the use of drones and other targeted killing. Obama announced he was sending new guidelines to Congress to govern “our use of force against terrorists” (while he was speaking about drones, he didn’t limit these guidelines to drones). His speech and the White House guidelines on it insist on a standard of “near-certainty” that the terrorist is present and that no civilians will be killed” in the strike. That is an improvement over past practice, and those more rigorous standards may explain why there have been vastly fewer drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen this year (even while some of the strikes seem to violate Obama’s recommitment to capture targets whenever possible, rather than kill them).
But the guidelines include a good deal of wiggle room, such as on whether they apply only to al-Qaida and associated forces or to terrorists more generally. It includes a significant reservation, asserting “these new standards and procedures do not limit the President’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies.” And it commits to notifying Congress only when “a counterterrorism operation covered by these standards and procedures has been conducted.” Given that Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Wash., has asked for over a year for a list of all the countries where we’ve used lethal force, it seems there may be lethal operations outside these guidelines.
The rollout of new guidelines suggests the administration has answers (though a report today from the Daily Beast suggests the administration doesn’t even know whether it will end strikes targeted at patterns, rather than individuals).
But in spite of all the lip service to new transparency, neither the president nor his aides had answers for CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, who interrupted the president’s speech calling to remember Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old American citizen son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed two weeks after his father in October 2011.
In Eric Holder’s letter yesterday declassifying the names of the four Americans we’ve killed with drones, he explained only that Abdulrahman and two others were “not specifically targeted.” In a briefing prior to the speech, a senior administration official hemmed and hawed when asked about Abdulrahman, refusing to explain why he was killed. “I don’t want to get into the details of each of those instances. What I will say generally is that there are times when there are individuals who are present at al-Qaida and associated forces facilities, and in that regard they are subject to the lethal action that we take. There are other instances when there are tragic cases of civilian casualties and people that the United States does not in any way intend to target -- because, again, as in any war, there are tragic consequences that come with the decision to use force, including civilian casualties.”
Obama, though, just paused while Benjamin cried out about the younger Awlaki.
Ultimately, he turned her ability to raise concerns about the teenager killed by a drone strike as another form of strength.
I’m going off script as you might expect here. The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. [Applause] Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.
Later, he even hailed Benjamin as he recited a list of Americans who represent resilience. “A citizen shouting her questions at the president.”
She may be resilient, but we still don’t have answers.
For all the answers Obama did offer today — some convincing, others not so much — ultimately some of the big questions remain.