Counterterrorism: Where are Obama’s policy changes?
It is now roughly five months since President Barack Obama announced a new direction for U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
â€śAmerica is at a crossroads,â€ť Obama said at the National Defense University in May. â€śWe must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us.â€ť
The president proceeded to set out his post-war vision for the nation — the peace dividend earned for the last 12 years of a complicated, costly and at times tragically misguided counterterrorism policy. The president, as usual, gave a good speech. Where heâ€™s weak is on the follow-through, however.
Though five months isnâ€™t that long, when it comes to a war that involves killing and indefinitely detaining a vaguely defined enemy, time is of the essence. Itâ€™s also critical to restoring U.S. credibility around the globe, particularly around the constitutional principles the president repeatedly emphasized.
Obama has taken a few steps in the right direction since May. As promised, he appointed an envoy at the State Department to focus on transferring Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, and just this month appointed someone in charge at the Pentagon as well. Heâ€™s sent home two of the 86 prisoners already cleared for transfer.
The president also promised to curtail his use of drones to kill suspected terrorists outside the Afghan war zone. He acknowledged the need to end whatâ€™s been interpreted as an indefinite authorization for the use of military force.
But a couple of appointments, two transfers and many more promises donâ€™t amount to real change. To be credible, Obama needs to do more. And thereâ€™s plenty he can do right now.
1. â€śGTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law,â€ť the president said in May. Transferring the remaining 84 detainees already cleared by government officials is a step Obama can take quickly to demonstrate heâ€™s committed to restoring Americaâ€™s reputation as a nation committed to the rule of law. Even with the transfer restrictions set by Congress, the president has sufficient authority to ensure that at least this group of prisoners leaves Guantanamo soon.
2. â€śMy administration,â€ť Obama said, â€śhas worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists — insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability.â€ť
Despite releasing a â€śfact sheetâ€ť on his â€śpolicy guidanceâ€ť on the use of force, the president still has not answered the â€śprofound questionsâ€ť he himself raised about the use of our new and rapidly-spreading drone technology. Heâ€™s also provided no way to know whether heâ€™s fulfilling his promise to use it responsibly.
Meanwhile, the drone program has continued over the past five months — with a stepped-up campaign in Yemen over the summer, followed by a barrage of strikes in Pakistan. Yet we know no more today than we did in May about how many U.S. drones have struck; whom or how many theyâ€™ve killed; the legal justification; the number of civilians killed in the process, and the overall effect of this killing campaign.
In fact, we donâ€™t even know if this administration believes we are at war in Yemen or in Pakistan. Or if itâ€™s operating under a legal theory of self-defense. The distinction is critical to which rules weâ€™re following.
In his speech, the president went beyond Afghanistan. â€śWe act,â€ť Obama said, â€śagainst terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.â€ť He added, â€śbefore any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.â€ť
This only begs the question. Were the dozens reportedly killed by U.S. drones in Yemen really posing an â€śimminent threat to the American peopleâ€ť that couldnâ€™t have been addressed by the government of Yemen? How many civilians were killed? We still donâ€™t know.
For the presidentâ€™s pledge to be viable, he must do more than promise. He should release all the legal memos his administration has written to explain the underlying legal justification for his targeted killing policy. He should start by systematically providing information about the number and nature of targets and civilians killed in each attack.
As for civilians, CIA director John Brennan testified at his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States â€śneed[s] to acknowledge publiclyâ€ť mistaken killings â€śin the interest of transparency.â€ť He later said that the administration should â€śmake public the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes targeting al Qaeda.â€ť
As the president said in May, this â€śis critical because much of the criticism about drone strikes — both here at home and abroad — understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties.â€ť
Washingtonâ€™s claims that drones are precise and result in few civilian casualties needs to be supported with verifiable facts. Thatâ€™s crucial not only to Obamaâ€™s credibility at home, but to reducing the risk of the drone program creating new enemies overseas.
3. â€śI believe we compromised our basic values,â€ť Obama said, â€śby using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.â€ť
Though the Justice Department declined to prosecute those who carried out acts of torture during the last administration, thatâ€™s not the end of the story. For the president to restore the United Statesâ€™ credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, he must reckon with what happened in some manner.
The best and easiest way is for him to support a process by which the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence can release its study of the CIAâ€™s brutal interrogation tactics — a 6,000-page report the committee completed last year. By publicly acknowledging this dark chapter in U.S. history, Washington can begin to assure the world that weâ€™ve learned from past mistakes and will not repeat them.
Only by acknowledging this ugly truth can we credibly demand that other countries do the same with their sordid pasts. It is simply not viable for Obama to tell the American people that we must â€ślook forward, not backwardâ€ť while telling Indonesians that they â€ścannot look forward without looking backward.â€ť
4. â€śWe cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.â€ť
In addition to pledging to address â€śthe underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremismâ€ť — admittedly a big task — Obama promised â€śto determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.â€ť
The withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan provides an opportunity to regain peacetime footing, and end our reliance on the Authorization for Use of Military Force — the domestic legal authority for the so-called war on terror. This is a promise the president should commit to now.
â€śIn the years to come,â€ť Obama proposed in May, â€śnot every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States.â€ť Unless weâ€™re committed to a better strategy, â€śwe may be drawn into more wars we donâ€™t need to fight,â€ť he said.
The president will still be able to use military force to protect against imminent threats to the United States. But five months ago he acknowledged that this war against â€śal Qaeda, the Taliban and their associated forcesâ€ť must end — and that he wanted to steer U.S. counterterrorism policy toward a more peaceful and stable course.
Now is the time to make clear to the American people — and the world — exactly how that will happen.
As Obama said: â€śThatâ€™s what our democracy demands.â€ť
PHOTO (Top): President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about his administration’s counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (Insert 1): The exterior of Camp Delta at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Bob Strong
PHOTO (Insert 2): U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator, unmanned aerial vehicle, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, performs a low-altitude pass during the Aviation Nation 2005 air show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, November 13, 2005. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Hall/Handout