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Obama National Security Chief Calls Drone Strikes “Just,” “Wise,” But Concedes We Attacked Militants Knowing Civilians Would Be Killed

As we near the first anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden (tomorrow) and the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration is trying to prove how much hair it has on its chest regarding national security.  Possibly, Medea Benjamin’s Drone Summit has spooked them a bit too.  So they trotted out John Brennan, the national security advisor, who claimed his speech was an attempt to be more “transparent” about U.S. policy on drones and similar counter-terror measures:

I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts…I venture to say that the United States government has never been so open regarding its counterterrorism policies and their legal justification.

…We reject the notion that any discussion of these matters is to step onto a slippery slope that inevitably endangers our national security.  Too often, that fear can become an excuse for saying nothing at all—which creates a void that is then filled with myths and falsehoods.  That, in turn, can erode our credibility with the American people and with foreign partners, and it can undermine the public’s understanding and support for our efforts.  In contrast, President Obama believes that—done carefully, deliberately and responsibly—we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security.

But if you read the speech closely you realize there’s been no substantive change and this speech in fact is little better than “saying nothing at all.”   For example, what happened in the bin Laden compound?  Was he assassinated?  The U.S. has video and conveniently says the live feed went dead as soon as the Navy Seals entered the residence.  But it won’t show you the video.  In fact, I’m virtually certain they intended to assassinate him all along and deliberately shut down the feed so as not to enable human rights NGOs to subpoena administration figures to testify to what they saw.

About Anwar al-Awlaki, he makes the following unsubstantiated claims:

[He was the] leader of external operations who was responsible for planning and directing terrorist attacks against the United States.

This is precisely the problem with targeted killings.  There is no evidence, no court proceedings, no standards of proof.  There are secret deliberations by a secret cabal of unknown officials who use procedures and follow criteria no one ever sees.  The U.S. never presented any evidence that al Awlaki was any more than an ideological firebrand and preacher.  If it had evidence, even if it intended to assassinate him, it should present it.  It didn’t.  Brennan’s vague word is simply not good enough.

Brennan attempts to argue that targeted killings are just because of the meticulous process by which we vet targets and the safeguards we impose to ensure the victims are bad guys and worthy of death.  But listen to how vague and empty are his claims of accountability:

President Obama has demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards and processes…This leads me to the…rigorous standards and process of review to which we hold ourselves today when considering and authorizing strikes…

…We require ourselves to meet [a high bar] when making these profound decisions today.

…We’ve worked to refine, clarify, and strengthen this process and our standards, and we continue to do so.  If our counterterrorism professionals assess, for example, that a suspected member of al-Qa’ida poses such a threat to the United States as to warrant lethal action, they may raise that individual’s name for consideration.  The proposal will go through a careful review and, as appropriate, will be evaluated by the very most senior officials in our government for decision.

…The individual must be a legitimate target under the law…If, after a legal review, we determine that the individual is not a lawful target, end of discussion.  We are a nation of laws, and we will always act within the bounds of the law.

…Even if it is lawful to pursue a specific member of al-Qa’ida, we ask ourselves whether that individual’s activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will, in fact, enhance our security.

…We review the most up-to-date intelligence, drawing on the full range of our intelligence capabilities.  And we…challenge it, we question it, including any assumptions on which it might be based…We don’t just hear out differing views, we ask for them and encourage them.  We discuss.  We debate.  We disagree.

…As the President’s counterterrorism advisor, I feel that it is important for the American people to know that these efforts are overseen with extraordinary care and thoughtfulness.

Not so fast.  I’ve posted here about a major Reuters review of the procedures and criteria Brennan outlines above.  Here’s what I wrote then:

What’s astonishing about all this is that the names of those on the panel are unknown, how they decide someone should die is unknown, and what evidence is used to determine on a death sentence is unknown.  Everything about this process is deliberately opaque.  And there is no written record of the panel’s deliberations in order to further insulate participants, especially the president himself.

In short, Brennan talks a good game.  But in reality the entire process by which we target our victims is opaque, anonymous, and lacking accountability.

Obama’s national security czar makes a laughingstock of national sovereignty as well.  Keep in mind what we’ve been doing in Pakistan as you read the following:

We do not use force whenever we want, wherever we want.  International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose constraints.  The United States of America respects national sovereignty and international law.

How are we respecting Pakistani sovereignty?  We clearly do not have Pakistani permission for our drone strikes.  If we do, then present it for public review.

Here Brennan says with a straight face that we consider our relations with countries like Pakistan when we kill their citizens:

We consider the broader strategic implications of any action, including what effect, if any, an action might have on our relationships with other countries.

Brennan further dissembles in this passage in which he magically conjures an “armed conflict” sanctioned by “international law” to justify the worst depredations of our counter-terror policies:

As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks.   and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense.

Though the national security advisor concedes that his government no longer uses the term “war on terror,” apparently he still needs the 9/11 attacks to justify wars and violence which have gone far, far beyond 9/11.  Once again, what we are doing in Pakistan has very little, if anything to do with 9/11 or with protecting our homeland.  It has everything to do with a president who sees political utility in mounting his own personal war on terror.  In some ways, it’s not that dissimilar to the ways in which Bush-Cheney exploited 9/11 to create a permanent counter-terror constituency that guaranteed them two terms in office.

The true danger of Obama’s counter-terror presidency is that it has no ultimate goal beyond the immediate one of liquidating Al Qaeda.  What do you do when you’ve killed it off?  No answer.  What vision or image do you project for the U.S. in the Middle East?  No answer.  Do we think a single well-meaning speech in Cairo constitutes a policy?  Obama has nothing after Al Qaeda.  Which is why we will never fully rid the world of radical Islam and perhaps don’t even deserve to.

Even if we do end this threat, with what will we replace it?  How will this vacuum be filled?  By our golden values of democracy and freedom?  What example have we set that any Middle Eastern nation will seek to emulate?  In truth, we offer them nothing but drones, Navy Seals, and cruise missiles.

u.s. drones kill civilians

Pakistani boy injured in U.S. drone strike

Brennan also offered one of the single most disgusting and mendacious set of claims about U.S. drone strikes in the Middle East:

It’s this surgical precision—the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qa’ida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it—that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.

… With the unprecedented ability of remotely piloted aircraft to precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage, one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qa’ida terrorist and innocent civilians.

This set of abject lies mirrors claims offered by the IDF after its targeted killing inevitably kill innocent Palestinian civilians.  These are always “laser-like” or “pinpoint” strikes with “surgical precision” that minimize civilian casualties, except when they don’t.  The U.S. has killed thousands of such civilians in Pakistan (700 alone in 2009), Iraq and Yemen, among other places.  And yet Obama’s counter-terror apologist says with a straight face that we “minimize” collateral damage.  Tell it to the widows and orphans in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In fact, Brennan concedes that the U.S. has targeted victims even when it knew innocent civilians would be killed, which seems a clear violation of international law:

…We only authorize a strike if we have a high degree of confidence that innocent civilians will not be injured or killed, except in the rarest of circumstances.

The president’s chief booster of counter-terror boasts that we even attempt to determine whether there has been “collateral damage” after an attack.  He even says that such vigilance on our part is a tribute to our American values.  It’s enough to make you sick.  What do we do after we determine we have killed innocents (indeed our first response in every case is to deny culpability, rather than to be open and candid)?  How do we replace the sons, daughters, fathers and mothers we’ve killed in error?  How do we make amends?  Brennan is, of course, silent on this subject.

Returning to Al Qaeda, he trumpets its demise as a viable force:

Al-Qa’ida has been left with just a handful of capable leaders and operatives, and with continued pressure is on the path to its destruction.  And for the first time since this fight began, we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al-Qa’ida core is simply no longer relevant.

He cherry picks evidence and intelligence information, all the while ignoring the potent threats Islamist terror continues to offer in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  With tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the latter nation, how is it that the Taliban mount complex, damaging attacks against our allies?  Just yesterday, the governor of Kandahar barely escaped assassination after the would-be killers passed through a U.S.-manned metal detector without being detected.  I’m guessing if you asked the governor whether his potential killers were on the path to their own destruction or no longer relevant, he might beg to differ.

Another characteristic of Brennan’s speech is to argue non sequiturs.  Instead of arguing that the U.S. has destroyed Al Qaeda’s ability to mount attacks against U.S. forces and its allies in the region, he argues that we’ve prevented them from mounting attacks on U.S. soil:

…It is harder than ever for the al-Qa’ida core in Pakistan to plan and execute large-scale, potentially catastrophic attacks against our homeland.

If anyone believes that we’re assassinating Pakistani militants because if we didn’t they’d attack is deluded.  Though there’s no doubt Al Qaeda has tried (and once succeeded) in reaching U.S. soil, no sensible person believes we’re propping up a corrupt Afghan government because otherwise the Taliban will bomb the White House.

The point is, and has always been not so much what radical Islam will do or can do against us, but how we conduct ourselves in the world.  If we represent our true values as a nation and project those values in the way we act beyond our shores, Al Qaeda’s message will not resonate.  If we betray our values at home and represent this decay in ways Brennan boasts in this speech, we will prolong the life of Al Qaeda and hasten our own decline both at home and abroad.

It’s no accident that Brennan, in reviewing the history of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy, attributes a continuity between Obama’s polices and those of the Bush administration:

This progress is no accident.  It is a direct result of intense efforts over more than a decade, across two administrations, across the U.S. government and in concert with allies and partners.

It’s no accident that Obama’s minions now embrace the sins and outrages of the Bushites.  There is qualitatively little or no difference between Obama and Bush.  That is why I will not vote for Barack Obama in November.

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{ 37 comments… add one }

  • Bob Mann May 1, 2012, 2:55 AM

    Who will you be voting for in November? Is there a third party or write-in candidate that you will be supporting?

    • Richard Silverstein May 1, 2012, 10:58 AM

      I might not vote for president. First time in my life.

      • mary May 2, 2012, 4:00 AM

        Same here, Richard. I’m living in Egypt now, and I’m told the policy regarding expats is that our votes are only counted if there is a tie back in the US. So I’m even less inclined to go through the trouble of casting an uncounted and useless vote. It will be the first time in my life, too.

        Medea Benjamin was in the audience during this speech, and she stood up and spoke calmly about how the US has been killing innocents with its drones. She was led away in handcuffs.

        I swear, I don’t understand why Americans are so afraid of “Islamists” on this side of the world. The real nightmare is what’s happening in the US. I’m scared to death for my family, because of what the US is rapidly becoming.

        • Editorsteve May 2, 2012, 7:23 AM

          The rule you cite is used in some states, not all.

          • Zhu Bajie May 3, 2012, 4:06 AM

            Well, I have not been able to get an absentee ballot for a loooong time. Voting in the US is like voting in Rome under Tiberias or Constantine, anyway. The rituals continue, but real power, real decisions, are not affected.

      • Bob Mann May 2, 2012, 1:50 PM

        It is sad to see this, especially in light of how excited you were about his election. Do you think that he did not pursue the policies that he said he would, or do you think that your own politics have changed in the last four years to the point that they are no longer aligned with his?

        • Richard Silverstein May 2, 2012, 7:52 PM

          He betrayed his values & everything he said & his progressive supporters believed he would do, regarding I-P peace

          • David May 10, 2012, 9:01 PM

            Yep. But what choice do we have? We are headed into a nightmare state (don’t get me started on documenting this!) and Obama is the only presidential tool we have, badly flawed as it is. I am certain his strategists knew that he could use up some his “overhead” with progressives, and play to the center and right with the wars in place, etc. I, too, would like to tell him that he lost credibility entirely and not vote for him. But, the alternative is modestly worse overall. ???

  • Fred Plester May 2, 2012, 3:22 AM

    American friends tend to agree that:

    A/ Obama simply isn’t good enough.

    B/ They’re not being presented with a choice of anyone better.

    Either America has a comprehensive absence of talent and integrity, or the talent is being deliberately kept from you!

    I would note that the UK media has a tendency to highlight the dangers of the BNP gaining power if people stop voting for the Tories/Labour/LibDems, whilst not generally mentioning if there is a UKIP or sensible independent candidate standing.

    Perhaps at least some of the blame belongs with editors and journalists, for either cowardice or downright complicity?

    • Fred Plester May 2, 2012, 3:26 AM

      PS:
      Actual BNP support has been steadily falling for years, yet we are still threatened with them by the Liberal media.

      The other thing is that in the US, any equivalent to the BNP wouldn’t be at all easy to distinguish from many “mainstream” Republican candidates.

      • mary May 2, 2012, 4:03 AM

        There is an equivalent to the BNP in the US – it’s called the Tea Party, and it’s quite distinguishable.

  • Editorsteve May 2, 2012, 7:22 AM

    Anything to guarantee a Republican victory in November, eh? Still believe one of the great American lies, that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats?

    There’s less difference than I would like on Middle Eastern politics, true. But even there, one party gets us into wars and one doesn’t.

    Politicians are never pure. Get over it.

    Also, as much as I am unnerved by drone-war (so easy!), I would not equate Israel policy (one supposed bad guy in the building? Blow it up and kill or maime 30 innocents…) with American rules of engagement.

    • mary May 2, 2012, 8:21 AM

      Which party doesn’t get us into wars? Funny, but I recall that LBJ, a Democrat, escalated US involvement in Vietnam. Bush Jr., a Republican, got us into Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama has stepped up drone attacks on Pakistan and may very well be persuaded by Israel to attack Iran.

      You wouldn’t equate Israel policy with American rules of engagement? Excuse me, Steve, but you need to have some conversations with Iraqis. You will change your mind.

      • David May 10, 2012, 9:13 PM

        Yes — you see the “rules of engagement” in Brennan’s speech, don’t you? He flatly states that we do what we want, when we feel we have to and that could include anything. In fact, Brennans talk is nothing but assertions about how good he and Obama are, how considerate, and that, well, we should just trust them to do the right thing. That’s basically it: Don’t worry about, we’re good Americans, etc. It is inconceivable to me that a spokesperson who adopt this sort of “openness”! But there it is.

        I don’t feel any better about drones as a result of this “openness” that is not open. Not one bit. The hazards of the structure he wants us to believe is in place are fantastic, and bear in mind, we have no way of knowing if they even are in place. It could just be some kid at the joystick who aims his drone at bearded men when he wants to amuse himself.

        Here’s a policy to consider: If all this due diligence is in place, then why use drones? If you have confidence in your analysis of such “surgical” precision and the justice of the hit, why not require that only armed piloted mini fighters be used in these hits? In short — force the government to risk a US casualty to get this dirty work done. This will slow down the process. Drones are immoral precisely because it is not combat, there is no risk taken.

  • bar_kochba132 May 2, 2012, 12:07 PM

    Yep, I remember your words after Obama was elected. You said with a President like him and a Democratic-controlled Congress, a new day was dawning. I warned you then that ALL presidents end up following the same policies on the Arab/Israeli conflict.
    Told’ja

    • Bob Mann May 2, 2012, 1:36 PM

      After the 2008 election:

      “Never in my lifetime have I cast a vote for any presidential candidate I believed in as much as Barack Obama.”

      Now:

      “There is qualitatively little or no difference between Obama and Bush. That is why I will not vote for Barack Obama in November.”‘

      What a difference four years makes. Startling to say the least. One wonders how many others followed this same trajectory with respect to Obama.

    • Richard Silverstein May 2, 2012, 2:34 PM

      Not only are you a pro-settler cynic, but you’ve become entirely too used to rightist Israeli governments getting their way by waiting out U.S. Administrations with obstreperous behavior.

      This will only work for so long. Until it won’t. Unjust regimes fall regularly & the Occupation regime will too. It’s a matter of time.

      • Zhu Bajie May 3, 2012, 4:09 AM

        Israeli clout in US politics is mediated via the Religious Right, the Christian Zionists, etc. When they lose hope in the Rapture solving their problems, they are likely to blame Jews in general, Israelis in particular.

  • chet380 May 2, 2012, 2:48 PM

    With yr declared intent not to vote for Pres. Obama you increase the prospect (albeit by one vote) that Romney will become president.

    Are you prepared to live with his clear intention to immediately bomb Iran, to give unqualified support to the racist Israeli policies and to savage domestic social programs?

  • mary May 2, 2012, 2:54 PM

    I felt pressured to vote for Obama in 2008 because I knew my vote was needed to stop McCain and Palin.

    At this moment I see no difference in the future of the world regardless of whether Obama or Romney win the election. They are just two products from the same brand.

    I will not make the mistake of letting anyone hustle my vote ever again. I’m sitting this one out because I won’t allow anyone to blame me for whatever the US does anymore.

    I live in Egypt. I am extremely happy to live in Egypt.

    • Zhu Bajie May 3, 2012, 4:10 AM

      And I am happy to live in China!

      • JONDS May 8, 2012, 3:28 PM

        And I am happy to live in Israel!!

  • Piotr Berman May 2, 2012, 5:02 PM

    My impression is that NATO uses about as many troops in Afghanistan as IDF uses in Area C. If we want to “solve the problem” we should get one or two millions of mercenaries, preferably from low wage countries, North Korea and Ethiopia comes to mind.

    We cannot solve the problem, we are on the way out, killing is only for “retreating with dignity”. One problem is that drones are immensely unpopular in Pakistan. I guess Pakistan still does not allow military transit through Khyber Pass. If so, would Israel attack Iran, my prediction is that Pakistani parliament will forbid any transit for NATO, ground or air, and that the same will happen in Central Asia, and western forces in Afghanistan will be under siege, with really bloody debacles.

    • Zhu Bajie May 3, 2012, 4:12 AM

      Remember the British retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War! There are few greater debacles in military history.

  • bezoar May 2, 2012, 5:39 PM

    By and large I agree with much in your blog, though I could raise many issues concerning it. In the interests of economy, I will limit them to two. Those grey people who make the kill determinations must remain anonymous for their own health, issues of morality and ethics aside: Nations do not act morally; they act in their own self-interests, whomever in decision-making capacity decides what they are. Second, technology knows no boundaries. The first drone-mediated attack on the U.S. will not be a grain silo in Kansas.

    • Zhu Bajie May 3, 2012, 4:14 AM

      The first drone attack will probably be some US local government blowing up someone resisting foreclosure of a mortgage or something equally stupid. Possibly someone on the Committee of Public Safety getting rid of a wife or mistress.

      • mary May 3, 2012, 10:49 AM

        The first drone attack will be most likely on Occupy protesters or some demonstration against the myriad wars or other criminal actions the US seems to find so necessary. Either that, or drone may be used to track down “most wanted” criminals a la “Fahrenheit 451.”

  • Zhu Bajie May 3, 2012, 4:04 AM

    Once again, life is cheap in Asia, at least to US politicians.

    I don’t expect this Committee of Public Safety will long resist the temptation to blow up personal or political enemies in the US, either.

  • Haver May 3, 2012, 12:45 PM

    It’s worth noting that in its own targeted killings case, the Israeli High Court explained the reasons that the policy outlined by John Brennan are a violation of the customary rules of international law:

    a) The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants. Attacks may only be directed against combatants. Attacks must not be directed against civilians.
    b) Civilians are protected against attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.

    The rules only allow attacks on civilians based upon the person’s actual conduct at the specific time and place, not upon their previous behavior, or membership in an organization.

    The big difference between the official US and Israeli policies was revealed when Anat Kamm and Uri Blau subsequently published documents which proved that the IDF was violating the Court’s orders and the customary rules. Its forces had been ordered to attack, not arrest, suspects who were not actively engaged in any hostilities.

    The Court took no action and even threw out a lawsuit that was seeking to block the nomination of the individual responsible, Yair Naveh, as IDF Deputy Chief of Staff.

    There is an article at Opinio Juris which points out some of the flaws in Brennan’s policy speech.
    link to opiniojuris.org

    • I wonder May 3, 2012, 10:42 PM

      Haver, that opinion piece makes some very usefull points.

      After all, if we accept that:
      a) The USA is in an armed conflict with the Taliban
      therefore
      b) “being a member of the Taliban” makes you a legitimate military target
      then we must also accept that
      c) “being an employee of the US Government” makes you a legitimate military target for the Taliban.

      US Postal Service employees.
      Internal Revenue Auditors.
      US State Department cleaning ladies.

      All those Federal employees would be legitimate targets for a Taliban Bomb Up The Backside.

      Yet I doubt that there would be a single person in the Obama Administration who would accept that argument when it is applied to THEM, even though they appear to have no problems applying it to the Taliban.

      Odd, hey?

      • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2012, 11:01 PM

        But you see we’re “good guys” & hence untouchable, while the Taliban and Al Qaeda are the bad guys. Not only that, but anyone even remotely associated with them (and some completely unassociated with them, but innocent bystanders) are legitimate targets by our logic.

        • I Wonder.... May 4, 2012, 5:37 PM

          Richard: “Not only that, but anyone even remotely associated with them (and some completely unassociated with them, but innocent bystanders) are legitimate targets by our logic.”

          That may be their “logic”, but it is clearly incorrect as a point of international humanitaria law.

          In an armed conflict any member of “their” armed forces is fair game, whereever they are and whatever they are doing.

          If “they” aren’t in the armed forces then you can’t target them UNLESS they are directly contributing to the ability of those armed forces to fight.

          But simply being a member of the organization that this armed force reports to does NOT necessarily mean that you make *any* contribution towards the war-making ability of that armed forces.

          And in that case you *can’t* be targetted.

          This is an important point to make: the laws of war are there to HELP THE CIVILIANS STAY ALIVE, they don’t exist to HELP JUSTIFY THE KILLING OF CIVILIANS.

          Israel and the USA sometimes seem to be rather confused on that distinction.

      • Haver May 4, 2012, 4:24 PM

        that opinion piece makes some very usefull points.

        Yes, there was a follow-up article by Bobby Chesney, over at Lawfare that offered a defense of US policy, and Gabor Rona’s response at Opinio Juris made the same points that you mentioned in your post:

        The more important question is whether the American vision of the outer limits of targeting powers articulated by Brennan is a net plus or minus to both national and international security, once it is inevitably adopted by others.

        Brennan’s speech is no mere refinement. He has taken things to a new level. If the legitimate targets are indeed in the “thousands,” then we live in a world in which the U.S. is dangerously close to asserting the powers of war anywhere, and against any perceived threat, whether or not it chooses to use those powers. When others do follow suit, with less forbearance than that exercised by the U.S. today, and very possibly against Americans, the U.S. may well decide to shoot back, but it will be in no position to complain.

        • mary May 5, 2012, 2:44 AM

          Forbearance? What forbearance? Sounds like the “good guys” mentality here again – that no matter what the US does, we are to take it as a given that it is doing the right thing, with wisdom and restraint, blah blah blah.

          And drones do make it possible for Obama to “assert the powers of war anywhere,” which he has done, and he does so without the necessity of getting congressional approval.

          • Haver May 5, 2012, 8:32 AM

            Forbearance? What forbearance?

            The US government claims that it has some sort of civilian oversight panel that makes determinations regarding targets, even though it has deprived US citizens and others of their lives without due process of law in violation of the 5th Amendment and Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

            In Reid v Covert the Supreme Court ruled that the President and the Congress are creatures of the US Constitution and that they have no power to commit acts beyond our borders which that document explicitly prohibits.

  • Zhu Bajie May 6, 2012, 9:55 PM

    “The US government claims that it has some sort of civilian oversight panel….” — Haver

    This is what I’ve been calling The Committee of Public Safety, after Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety.

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