After Obama’s Speech, Many Questions on Drones Still Unanswered

President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University yesterday was arguably one of the most important – and most consequential – of his Presidency. His nine pages of remarks on counterterrorism operations specifically focused on drone policy and the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and seemed to signal a shift (of some sort) to end the War on Terror against specific groups, but to continue a war against radicalized ideology.

I’ll discuss GTMO in a later post. On drone policy, President Obama addressed many of the questions I posed yesterday in my post at United Liberty; but addressing is not the same as answering. Many of those questions remain unanswered; worse yet, I’m afraid this is the best we will get on drone policy.

To be fair, Obama is in the unenviable position of making actual life-and-death decisions on national security. Mistakes will be made, and his challenge is to minimize mistakes. In his own words:

“Much of the criticism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties.”

Overall, it was a thoughtful speech very typical of Obama: He presented both sides of an argument without rendering definite decisions. It’s what we saw in Audacity of Hope, where the dilemma itself justifies his position. Case in point: Some saw the speech as “the end of perpetual war,” while others saw it as “justification for expansion.”

But I give the President credit for trying to sort through these issues, and for doing so thoughtfully. For instance, President Obama’s quoted James Madison, saying: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Accordingly, we should welcome his call to repeal the archaic September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) that is being used to justify everything from drone strikes in Yemen, to boots on the ground in Libya, to indefinite detention at GTMO.

My objections to the speech are two-fold:

1) Not enough is beind done to protect due process for US citizens. In his speech, President Obama said:

“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.”

Fair point, but I believe more is required here, and recommend doing what Senator Rand Paul suggested yesterday: Try a citizen for treason in a court of law in absentia and remove their citizenship. It should be noted this is not desirable to an actual trial, and is troubling in that it lacks precedent. Furthermore, an attempt at this – for Anwar Al-Awlaki, before he was killed  – was dismissed by a U.S. District Judge. Such a trial, however would require two witnesses to the treason, according to Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution, and would extend at least some level of due process to citizens before sentencing them to death by drone. On this point, after the President’s speech, Senator Paul quipped, “I still have concerns over whether flash cards and PowerPoint presentations represent due process.” Touché, sir.

2. Not enough is being doing to mitigate civilian casualties. If the technology exists to locate terrorists with precision accuracy, that same accuracy should be required to engage them. Remember, the intelligence we trust to properly assign drone targets is the intelligence we trust for carrying out those strikes. If the strikes are flawed, it’s possible the targeting itself is flawed as well.

Of note, the disposition matrix - that is, the “next generation capture/kill list” that is used to carry out targeted strikes, such as the one that killed Anwar Al-Awlaki - went unaddressed. As opposed to targeted strikes – such as the one that – signature strikes are based on criteria which “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” The signature strikes, and the criteria for them, also went unaddressed.

Finally, there was another unaddressed question posed point-blank – in a truly amazing moment - by Code Pink cofounder Medea Benjamin in an exchange with the President:  “Can you tell us why Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was killed?” Initial accounts signaled 17-year old American citizen Abdulrahman was killed while eating dinner along with Ibrahahim Al-Banna - but, by accounts now, Al-Banna is still alive. From this one drone attack comes a wellspring of questions: Is our intelligence that bad? Or was Abdulrahman actually being targeted? If so, then comes the question Mrs. Benjamin asked: Why was he killed?

For other problems found with the President’s speech, I defer to the points made by Conor Fridersdorf in his article at the Atlantic and by Spencer Ackerman in his post at Wired’s Danger Room.


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