Here’s the take-away from President Obama’s speech today at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, in Washington DC.
The drone surge may finally be over. By some estimates, 98% of drone strike casualties were civilian noncombatants (50 for every one “suspected terrorist”). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism issued a report detailing how the CIA deliberately targeted rescuers who show up after an attack, and mourners at funerals as a part of a “double-tap” strategy eerily reminiscent of methods used by terrorist groups like Hamas.
In the months and years ahead, drone strikes once conducted by the CIA will become more of a U.S. military responsibility. The rules for launching the strikes will become stricter — there must be a “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed, for instance — and they’ll become less frequent. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective,” Obama said… “is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
Yet neither Obama nor senior administration officials ruled out the most controversial aspect of Obama’s counterterrorism measures: so-called signature strikes, in which the CIA does not know the identities of the people it targets, but infers terrorist affiliation based on their observed patterns of behavior.
President Obama says he’s sorry.
Of the civilians who have died in the strikes, Obama said: “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.”
Of course, the other guys kill civilians too.
“Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes,” he added.
We’re going to try again to close Guantanamo. But detention without charges and military commissions will continue.
“Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from Gitmo. I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions,” he said. “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.”
Maybe it’s time to re-think the war on terror thing. This part of the speech was surprising, because only a week ago Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told Congress that the war on terror would last another 10 to 20 years.
While Obama would not declare an end to the war on terrorism, Obama offered to work with Congress to constrain some of his own authorities for waging it, reflecting what he and aides described as a discomfort with permanent executive war powers. He said he was “open” to working with Congress to establish some additional mechanism to oversee the proper targeting of terrorists, such as a court modeled on the secretive one that oversees the surveillance of suspected foreign agents. He also expressed a preference to constrain “and ultimately repeal” the broad latitude of warmaking powers granted in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the legislative wellspring of the war. “This is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions,” Obama said.
President Obama’s credibility isn’t good. Obama was interrupted by Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin three times. After she was removed from the room by security, he acknowledged her opposition to his policies ought to be taken seriously.
“The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,” Obama said. “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.”
Benjamin shouted, as she was escorted out of the news conference:
“Can you tell the Muslim people that their lives are as precious as our lives?Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities? Will you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That will make us safer.”
Obama’s major speech outlining the Administration’s counter-terrorism policy on Thursday marked a win for al-Qaeda, according to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).
UPDATE: Marcy Wheeler: Has Obama Presented a New Plan to Fight Terror or More of the Same?