Micah Zenko

Confront and Confuse

Did Obama's speech actually say anything new about drones?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, President Obama gave an exhaustive and wide-ranging speech that attempted to re-frame U.S. counterterrorism objectives, defend his administration’s policy choices, and provide guidance for the remainder of his second term. This speech had been promised in Obama’s State of the Union address, and it was effectively the culmination of a 16-month effort to selectively engage with — and shape — public debate so as to put drone strikes on a more defensible footing.

Obama should be credited for recognizing that targeted killings are controversial among Americans and that discussing their ethical and policy tradeoffs is his responsibility as president. In the speech, he also finally acknowledged what no U.S. government official had ever admitted: that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan predominantly targeted individuals who threatened U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, not the U.S. homeland. As Obama noted: "By the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we’ve made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes."

The term "force protection" is defined by the Pentagon as "preventive measures taken to mitigate hostile actions against Department of Defense personnel (to include family members), resources, facilities, and critical information." The force protection objective of Pakistan drone strikes partially explains why their numbers expanded and contracted with the surge and withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Why the Bush and Obama administrations refused to acknowledge, until Thursday, what was plainly evident to anybody who followed this issue, will likely remain an unsolved riddle of the war on terror.

The most anticipated component of the speech was what language Obama would use to describe the individuals that the United States contends it can legitimately target outside of traditional battlefields. As this column has noted repeatedly, trying to intuit U.S. targeted killing policies from the adjectives and phrases used by senior officials has been a wasted effort, since the gap between justification and actual practice has been so wide.

There were a series of pre- and post-speech leaks to influential national security reporters which suggested that Obama would limit drone targets. Two hours before the speech there was also an embargoed conference call with three anonymous administration officials (you can probably guess who they were), which provided some clarity. President Obama also reportedly met with foreign policy columnists after his speech, including Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Fred Hiatt, and Gerald Seib.

These sources told us three things:

First, the new classified presidential policy guidance contains a "preference that the United States military have the lead for the use of force…beyond Afghanistan where we are fighting against al-Qaida and its associated forces," according to one official. "The White House plan is for the Defense Department to assume control over all drone operations in less than two years," wrote Mark Mazzetti. In contrast, Greg Miller determined that "Obama’s New Drone Policy Leaves Room for CIA Role." On Tuesday, White House correspondent Peter Baker contended that ending CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is not assured, but will be reviewed bi-annually "to determine if it was ready to be moved to military control."

Second, in responding to a question about military versus CIA operations, another anonymous official said that "the targeting parameters for all lethal actions are uniform," which I interpreted to mean that they apply no matter who is the lead executive authority. In January 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the same legal principles regarding "direct actions" apply to "all components of the government involved in counterterrorism, be it military or nonmilitary."

Third, the new guidelines indicate that targets must present a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans," according to a U.S. official. The New York Times and the Financial Times both wrote that this indicated an end to the controversial practice of "signature strikes" against anonymous military age males whose guilt is determined, in part, by the patterns of their observable behavior. But, on Tuesday, Baker wrote: "For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes’ targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas." Meanwhile, Declan Walsh revealed that this year "the United States cut back on so-called signature strikes against clusters of militant suspects." So, who knows?

The problem is that, in his speech, President Obama did not directly address any of those issues, nor are they discussed in the declassified summary of the presidential policy guidance. He also did not speak to the longstanding concern of what procedures are in place to mitigate harm to civilians, stating instead: "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set." This is merely an assertion, and it raises further questions about how the Obama administration defines "near-certainty" and what lower standard they were following previously.

(Secretary of State John Kerry further confused things days later when he proclaimed: "The only people that we fire on are confirmed terrorist targets, at the highest levels, after a great deal of vetting." One difference between the previous guidance and the new guidance is that there is no longer a mention of "senior al Qaeda officials," which makes the "highest levels" comment puzzling.)

This was supposed to be the speech in which President Obama clarified his targeted killing policies. Instead, he further confused both domestic and international audiences. By comparing it with previous administration officials’ comments, Jonathan Landay determined that "Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes." Wall Street Journal reporters came to the opposite conclusion: "The new language is more restrictive than the policy declared in an April 2012 speech by John Brennan, then White House counterterrorism chief."

To quote the rant by former New York Jets football coach Herman Edwards about anonymous comments by his staff: "Just put your name on it. That’s all I say. Be a man, or a woman, put your name on it."

This is President Obama’s policy. He has authorized over seven times more drone strikes than his predecessor, he is the commander in chief, and he can declassify whatever information he wants. He missed this opportunity to put his name on his drone policies, relying on his senior aides to do it for him — a common presidential practice. To assure his administration remains the "most transparent in history," he should direct Brennan’s replacement, Lisa Monaco, to prepare a follow-up speech that explains to the public, not just to selected reporters, what U.S. targeted killing policy really is.

Later in the speech, Obama also touted the extent of his administration’s engagement with Congress, declaring, "I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress." This language suggests that the Bush administration never reported non-battlefield targeted killings to the Senate and House intelligence committees, which is not true.

Moreover, congressional oversight extends beyond four committees receiving after-the-fact notifications of targeted killings. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committee members and staffers have repeatedly requested, and been denied, general briefings about how targeted killings are conducted within the countries in which they oversee U.S. policy. The judiciary committees and others have requested at least 21 times access to all the Office of Legal Counsel memoranda that provide the legal basis for targeted killings. And the White House has flatly refused repeated requests for administration officials to testify at recent hearings regarding targeted killings. This is strange behavior for a president that has "insisted on strong oversight."

Obama also endorsed "efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal" the Authorization for Use of Military Force, adding, "I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further." This must have been news to the national security bureaucracy, since just two weeks prior four senior civilian and military officials repeatedly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the AUMF should be maintained. As Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, stated: "I think the AUMF as currently structured works very well for us…. Senator Inhofe said if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I would subscribe to that policy."

Toward the end of his speech, while being interrupted with questions by activist Medea Benjamin, Obama stated: "These are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." But on Thursday the president did gloss over a lot of them — and the White House’s leaks didn’t help. What matters now is whether the Obama administration will actually tell Congress and the American public how it is conducting targeted killings. As the president declared in his State of the Union address, "[I]n our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way."

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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