Obama on “Just [drone] War” – the long awaited speech (and six lingering problems)

White House video and official transcript here.

Obama said the U.S. was at a “crossroads” at a speech given on Thursday at the National Defense University. There were two main talking points: drones and Gitmo.

It was largely a defense of drone strikes, rather than a repudiation, and there were very few specifics. Obama defended the tactic as effective, legal and life-saving. In his first major counter-terrorism address of his second term, he added there would be new guidelines for drones, which should now only targets that pose a “continuing, imminent threat” to the U.S., and only in instances which there is a “near-certainty” of zero civilian causalities. In summary:

  • “Near certainty” the target was present and that civilians would not be injured or killed
  • Capture would not be feasible
  • Authorities of the country in question could not or would not address the threat
  • No other reasonable alternatives were available

Already there are two problems with this:

1. Drone strikes are already used in cases of an “immanent” threat. The phrase has no legal basis, and is constructed by Obama administration officials. In other words, it’s already widely used as a standard targeting procedure.

2. The Obama administration decides who is a civilian and who is not. And as it turns out, the administration defines militants as “military aged” males that are in the wrong place at the wrong time. A civilian is only proved to be so posthumously.

Obama went on: “As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion”, adding “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance”, and that “this war, like all wars, must end”.

When, this might be, however was not discussed.

As the Washington Post continues, “Obama made clear that other pieces of the nation’s counterterrorism apparatus will remain in place, including targeted killings with drones. He made no mention of ending the CIA’s involvement in the drone campaign“.

And herein lies the third problem. Despite talk of transferring strikes to the Pentagon, and murmurings of a “drone court”, the CIA is off-limits.

The fourth problem: the widely criticized “blank check” issued by Congress in 2001 – the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) will remain intact.

The fifth problem: there were no specifics of how the drone program would become more “transparent”. Instead, many of the changes will be kept behind closed doors – in a classified “Presidential Policy Guidance directive” on counterterrorism operations that he signed this week. According to the Washington Post:

The officials said the classified directive also establishes a “preference” for the military to take the lead in drone operations, which are conducted by the armed forces and the CIA.

And now the sixth problem: Obama’s “preference” to have drone strikes delivered by the Pentagon.

Transferring control over the drone program to the “military” in no way guarantees public oversight. In fact, the branch of the military that currently oversees drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia – the Joint Special Operations Command – is just as secretive as the CIA. In fact, in many ways it is more so. The 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act EXEMPTED the military from reporting its activities to Congress, if the military was conducting secret operations it considered to be “traditional military activities”.

Moreover, in 2004 the Secretary of Defense issued a secret directive, known internally at the Pentagon as the “Al Qaeda Network Execute Order” that expanded the powers of special-operations troops to kill, capture, and spy in more than a dozen countries. The order gave JSOC, the new “model army” for a post 9/11 era, broad authority to launch operations across an arc of territory from North Africa all the way to the Philippines. The missions were highly classified, seldom publicly acknowledged, and irregularly briefed to members of Congress. JSOC saw its budget explode during this period.

In 2009, CENTCOM Commander David Patreaus signed a secret directive that expanded military spying activities throughout the Muslim world to “prepare the environment”.

The order gave permission for highly classified units like Task Force Orange – the HUMINT gathering teams connected to JSOC, as well as private contractors, to “develop clandestine operational infrastructure that can be tasked to locate, identify, isolate, disrupt/destroy” extremist networks and individual leaders of terror groups.

The directive was called the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order – part of a broad-based initiative during the first year to define the role of the military in countries beyond declared war zones, which had become chaotic in the years since Rumsfeld pushed for the Pentagon to become involved in human spying.

Put bluntly, the future of drone warfare is as shadowy as it is today. Both the Pentagon and the CIA conduct global espionage and targeted killing programs–sometimes in tandem (as in Yemen) other times in parallel (as in Libya / Pakistan).

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