Over four years into his tenure, President Barack Obama says he is reining in drone strikes. In a speech on the future of counterterrorism, Obama announced that he had signed a presidential guidance statement on drone warfare, codifying the cases in which it is justifiable. Targets, he says, must pose a "continuing, imminent threat" to US persons, and it must be nearly certain that the target is present in an area and non-combatants will not be injured or killed.
"His citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper ... should be protected from a SWAT team."
He also insisted that Congress had been briefed on all strikes outside Iraq and Afghanistan, including the attack on radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the only American citizen known to have been targeted in a strike. But this does not mean that Congress had the option to stop the strike, or that members outside select committees were briefed. "For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any US citizen — with a drone, or a shotgun — without due process," said Obama. "Nor should any President deploy armed drones over US soil. But when a US citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill US citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team."
Among other things, Obama brought up proposals to establish a special court that could decide when strikes were justified, or an independent unit of the executive branch that would serve as an arbiter. While he said he looked forward to discussing these options with Congress, he expressed concern that they would either raise constitutional issues or add too much bureaucracy to the process.
Drone strike oversight proposals include establishing an independent committee to evaluate threats
Obama's speech is the latest in a gradual lifting of the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the drone strike program. While American drone strikes have been common knowledge for some time, the White House rarely discussed specific details until the past year. In the past months, more information has emerged about the program, including a leaked paper laying out the circumstances under which the Department of Justice can order a strike. Congress has also shown an increasing interest in oversight, holding the first hearing on the program last month.
Obama, like other officials, has said that drone strikes minimize civilian deaths
CIA head John Brennan has previously called civilian casualties from drone strikes "exceedingly rare," saying that targeted strikes can minimize casualties more than almost any other method of attack. Obama admitted that there was a "wide gap" between official estimates of civilian casualties and reports by NGOs, though he did not disclose the former. While he said these casualties are a "hard fact," though, "it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world."
Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that four American citizens had been killed by strikes since 2009. One, Anwar al-Awlaki, was specifically targeted as a high-ranking al Qaeda member, and three others were killed as part of an attack on someone else — including al-Awlaki's son Abdulrahman. Over these years, the number of drone strikes have steadily decreased, something that is attributed partly to a weakening of al Qaeda and partly to Obama's attempts to "refine" the program. Obama has also said that as military operations in Afghanistan wind down, the need for drone strikes will decrease.
But this is not the only contentious issue the White House must address. In his speech, Obama made yet another tentative step towards closing the detainment center at Guantanamo Bay, which currently keeps 166 prisoners in limbo. Today, he lifted the ban on sending detainees to Yemen and announced that he would appoint an envoy at the State and Defense Departments whose "sole responsibility" would be to transfer prisoners to other countries where their cases could be evaluated.
"We are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?"
The New York Times has reported that over a hundred detainees are on a hunger strike, with dozens on forced feeding schedules, and their plight has raised public concern over the facility higher than it's been in years. This attention almost certainly spurred this section of Obama's speech, where he referenced the strike: "Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?"
He also attempted to allay concerns about his administration's aggressive targeting of people who leak information to reporters. Over the past weeks, it's been revealed that the Justice Department conducted surveillance of journalists at the Associated Press and Fox News, attempting to identify whistleblowers responsible for security leaks. Obama reiterated that he intended only to prosecute officials who leak data, not reporters, pointing to his push for a media shield law.
As Obama drew near the end of his speech, he was interrupted: activist Medea Benjamin of anti-war group Code Pink accused him of dragging his feet on Guantanamo's closure, and of avoiding discussing the death of al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son. "Is that how we treat people?" she asked. "Apply the rule of law. You are a constitutional lawyer." In response, Obama admitted that "the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to ... These are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." But as he continued with his speech, the question remains: how much progress will actually be made in the wake of his words?