On Wednesday, the Obama administration acknowledged, via a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Senator Patrick Leahy, that it had killed four American citizens in drone strikes. The Americans were New Mexico imam Anwar al-Awlaki, his son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the publisher of Inspire, a magazine for jihadists, Samir Khan, and 23-year-old Raleigh, NC man Jude Kenan Mohammad. Holder claimed that the administration only set out to kill Anwar al-Awlaki. The others "were not specifically targeted by the United States," Holder said — whatever that means.
Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech on US counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University in downtown Washington, DC. A few hours before the event, Amy Davidson wrote in the New Yorker, "One thing to watch for in Obama's speech is humility about the quite reasonable constitutional, legal, and moral doubts American have about this program. Another might be a recognition that the secrecy around it has been corrosive. Why, having killed four Americans, has it taken Obama a couple of years to admit it? That double lack of accountability, both before and after, makes the situation all the more sour."
President Obama's speech contained a number of important announcements, particularly concerning the logistics of releasing Guantánamo prisoners "recommended for transfer" to other countries. In addition, the president spent a good deal of the speech discussing drones, defending targeted strikes as effective and legal. He said that he grappled with the deaths of civilians that often resulted, and acknowledged that the collateral damage alienates many of the countries where his administration is fighting to curb extremism. He also made a pledge to improve transparency with respect to the use of drones when conducting lethal operations. The Guardian (UK) provides a detailed summary.
There is plenty in Obama's speech that could use some unpacking and critical analysis.
Are drones effective? According to a joint report from Stanford Law School and the NYU School of Law, there is a good deal of evidence that suggests US drone strike policies "foment anti-American sentiment" and may aid recruitment to "armed non-state actors." The report notes, "While quantitative data is limited, one study, in June 2012 by the Middle East Policy Council, identified a correlation between drone strikes and terrorist attacks in the years 2004-2009. That study found...that there is a substantive relationship between the increasing number of drone strikes and the increasing number of retaliation attacks.”
Are drone strikes legal? Not exactly, says Kevin Jon Heller of the University of Melbourne Law School, in his essay in The Journal of International Criminal Justice titled "'One Hell of a Killing Machine': Signature Strikes and International Law."
What about the number of civilian casualties? In 2011, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism claimed that 168 children were killed in seven years of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan (so not including Yemen). These children would account for 44 percent of the minimum figure of 385 civilians reported killed. In the most comprehensive analysis of the impact that US drone strikes have on civilian populations, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic report Counting Drone Strike Deaths concludes, "The uncertainty about civilian deaths is largely due to the U.S. government's resistance to openly providing information about strikes...[mainstream] tracking organizations' estimates significantly undercount the number of civilians killed by drone strikes" which "may distort our perceptions and provide false justification to policymakers who want to expand drone strikes to new locations, and against new groups."
But many people were encouraged by the speech. Some have claimed that Obama is ending (at least rhetorically) the "War on Terror" — like General Willian Nash, a veteran of Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, who said "[Obama] has begun the transition from a perpetual war to a more normalised national security framework." Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First, said, "We strongly welcome the statement that our values and ideals are our greatest asset." Despite the Nation's John Sifton taking issue with the country being in an ongoing war with al Qaeda and its "associated forces," he was still heartened by "the beginning of the end" of the global "War on Terror." "By far the most significant outcome of the speech," Sifton wrote, "was that Obama pledged to 'engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force' that was passed in the days after the September 11 attacks, as part of an effort to 'refine — and ultimately repeal — the AUMF's mandate.'"
Jeremy Scahill, however, disagrees. Far from hailing Obama's speech as a sure sign that he is going to end the perpetual US war on terror, the Nation Books author and Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow has been all over the news criticizing the administration's counterterrorism polices. Scahill is the foremost expert on the specific incidents involved concerning the killing of the four US citizens; the author of the New York Times bestseller Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, he exposes Obama's covert wars abroad and examines, in detail, the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
In the past day, Scahill has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC (see video below), and The Lead with Jake Tapper on CNN (see video below). In his interview with Tapper, Scahill said, "Effectively Obama has declared the world a battlefield, and reserves the right to drone-bomb countries in pursuit of people against whom we may not even have direct evidence, or that we're not seeking any indictments against..."