A Non-Policy,Contradictory Counterterrorism Speech

I’ve had to take time off from blogging due to restrictions on eye movement in preparing for a retina reattachment operation on my left eye and then recovering from the operation. Today starts my third full week since the operation and the retina remains attached.

On June 25 I will have a cataract removed from my right eye. After these two opeations, I may be able to give up eyeglasses, except for reading.

Ther most succinct assessments I’ve read of President Barack Obama’s recent counterterrorism policy speech has been done by a senior Brookings Institute fellow and a Washington Post reporter. Benjamin Wittas of Brookings, wrote in his Web site Lawfare that: “To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has — but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.” Scott Wilson, writing in the May 23, 2013 Washington Post, noted the “unusual ambivalence from a commader in chief over the difficulties” in trying to bring national security policies in line with the nation’s founding values.

My own assessment of the speech is that it was designed to enhance Obama’s legacy, despite counterwailing evidence; tried to put the onus on Congress for not giving him clear enough policy directions; doesn’t explain how major policy changes will be made in the future; and rebukes much of what his administration has already done in counterterrorism poalicy.

Four years ago, at the National Archives, President Obama advocated an abrupt departure from the national secuity policies of a country he said had “veered off course” under George W. Bush. He condemned the Bush administration for detention and interrogation policies that are contrary to American values and he banned the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

Despite the National Archives speech, Obama has essentially followed Bush policies and both have relied on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF); however, in his counterterrorism speech he called on Congress to put llimits on a president’s use of military force, ignoring the fact that the  AUMF does not require the president to rely heavily on drone attacks and Special Forces in counterterrorism policy.

President Obama also wants Congress to pass media shield legislation. This request comes in the immediate wake of the Department of Justice secretly obtaining telephone records on more than 20 separate telephone lines and involving more than 100 Associated Press journalists. The records were deemed to be important in an effort to discover the source of a foiled bomb plot.

Obama said he was “troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable” and he called on Attorney General Eric Holder to assess the guidelines for such investigating and report to him in July. Congressional lawmakers might not be eager to pass media shield legislation for an administration that had secretly launched a major search for journalists’ telephone records.

One of the most impassioned passages in Obama’s speech was his condemnation of force-feeding at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility (Gitmo). Obama asked: “Is that who we are?” “Is that the America we want to leave to our children?” President Obama failed to note that the United Nations Human Rights Commission determined in 2006 that the violent force-feeding of Gitmo detainees amounted to torture.*

Barack Obama pledged as far back as the 2008 presidential campaign that he would close Gitmo. Well if he didn’t feel he had the legal authority to close the facility, he certainly has it now. Section 1028(d) of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act has a waiver provision that empowers the Secretary of Defense to authorize transfers when it is in the national security interest. The defense secretary could cite analyses that Gitmo breeds terrorists and transfer all detainees out.

Regarding Gitmo, President Obama also failed to promise to stop blocking the release of detainees cleared by habeas corpus proceedings.

In his counterterrorism speech, Barack Obama made the sensible point that the war on terrorism, like all wars, must end some day; furthermore, he said we could not indefinitely detain suspected terrorists not convicted in a lawful process. Yet he provided no guidance on how or when these kinds of policies would end. Obama  has been a supporter of indefinite detention up to now and law enforcement agencies continue to arrest and bring to trial home-grown suspected terrorists who have no known llink to al Qaeda or associated forces. Once more, intelliigence analysts contend that al Qaeda has metastasized into smaller regional groupings that have no discernible link to a centralized authority.

President Obama’s position and that of the Department of Justice is a hopeless muddle in regard to when a U.S. citizen can be killed. In his counterterrorism speech, 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 shotgun — without due process.” However, he immediately carved out an exception for a “terrorist,” such as Anwar al Awlaki, who goes abroad to wage war against Americans and “we cannot capture him alive.”

The Department of Justice White Paper says that a U.S. citizen can be killed even when there is no “clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

President Obama further muddied the waters wen he said that we only strike at al Qaeda and associated forces; also, he flatly stated that “America does not take strikes to punish individuals.” Later, howeve,r, in the counterterrorism speech, he said that the decision to use force against individuals or groups is “the hardest thing I do.”

The Obama speech included an acknowledgment that the drone program kills civilians and he proposed a tougher policy, whereby a drone attack could not be made unless there was a “near-certainty” that civilians would not be harmed. Given, however, that U.S. military commanders and CIA drone operatives have insisted for years that utmost precautions are taken to prevent harm to civilians, “near-certainty” does not seem to be a real policy change.

Although Obama’s speech didn’t specify that “signature strikes” would end — strikes based on “patterns of life,” such as helping to unload ammunition from a truck — a White House Fact Sheet changes the current policy of defining as combatants all men of military age in the strike zone.

In summary, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism speech repudiates much of what his administration has done and proposes pseudo policy changes that will allow him to carry out essentially the same counterterrorism policies he pursued in his first term.

*Although President Obama has contended that he has ended the use of torture and the authority for it, interviewed Afghan detainees have described interrogation methods of sleep deprivation and extreme temperature modification in CIA-operated prisons in Afghanistan during Obama’s presidency.

When President Obama led the effort to give detrainees more legal rights in the Military Commissions Act of 2009, the provision in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that gives the president the authority to permit the CIA to use torture — enhanced interrogation — under national security grounds was not touched.



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