Posted by on April 30, 2012 in Blog

By Jeffrey Wright

2012 Spring Intern

President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, John O. Brennan, delivered a major speech this afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in defense of the Administration’s counterterrorism policies. The speech came days before the one year anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and one day after Brennan’s tour of the Sunday morning political talk shows to mount a vigorous defense of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism record. Much of Brennan’s speech to the audience at the Wilson Center concerned the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in strikes against suspected members of al-Qaeda, a program which has drawn fierce criticism from many, including academics and civil libertarians. After touting the Administration’s offensive against al-Qaeda, Brennan defended the drone program on three grounds. First, he argued, drone strikes are legal according to Administration lawyers, who have ruled that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (2001 AUMF) gives the President the authority to capture or kill anyone suspected of having planned, executed, or assisted in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Second, Brennan asserted that drone strikes are ethical because their precision allows the US military to avoid undue civilian casualties, and their use precludes the need to risk the lives of American troops. Third, Brennan believes that drone strikes are wise because they increase the reach of the US military, preclude the need for large occupation forces, and protect the lives of innocent civilians.  

Brennan went on to detail the process by which the Obama Administration determines if and when an individual can be attacked by a drone. First, that person must be a member of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or another affiliated organization, and thus a legal target under the strictures of the 2001 AUMF. Second, the potential target must be an active and ongoing threat to American security. Brennan stressed that drone strikes are not undertaken for punitive or retroactive purposes, so an individual implicated in past attacks must also be planning new ones in order to qualify. Third, drone strikes are used only when capturing the suspect would be prohibitively risky to American soldiers and/or civilians in the surrounding area. Lastly, the proposed drone strike must respect the sovereignty of other nations. Brennan asserted that the process of determining who is an al-Qaeda operative is thorough and detailed, but that it cannot be disclosed. If that person is an American citizen, such as the late Anwar al-Awlaki, his case is subjected to “additional review” under the provisions laid out earlier this year by Attorney General Eric Holder.

There are important and substantive problems with the drone program and Brennan’s defense of it, but perhaps more alarming was the speech’s major “revelation.” Brennan admitted for the first time that the US was using drones to kill suspected terrorists around the world. If you’re confused about why that would be news, you’ve not yet gone far enough down the rabbit hole. Though drone strikes have been ongoing since less than a month after 9/11, and the US military and CIA have conducted hundreds of them in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, among other places, their existence had always been officially denied by the US government. Thus, Brennan’s public acknowledgement of their existence makes news. The fact that a top American counterterrorism official acknowledged in public for the first time the existence of a program that has been widely known and written about for more than ten years, and that that acknowledgement is treated as the major revelation of his speech, speaks volumes about the federal government’s odd relationship with secrecy after 9/11.

Brennan’s defense of the drone program is also unsatisfactory on a number of more substantive grounds. First, the use of the 2001 AUMF gives the drone program potentially indefinite longevity. Because it authorizes the President to make war against anyone related to the 9/11 attacks without specifically defining that group, the 2001 AUMF can and has been interpreted ever more broadly. To take just one example among many, the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify the killing of militants in Yemen connected to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that did not exist in 2001, let alone played a part in the 9/11 attacks. Administration lawyers get around this barrier by classifying AQAP and other groups as allied to al-Qaeda, and thus legitimate targets, but this explanation stretches the bounds of credulity. If the targets were involved in 9/11, the Administration would know who they were. Yet the policy governing drone strikes in Yemen allows them to be carried out even when the identities of those targeted are unknown. This issue gets to the heart of the problem with the drone program. If the definition of those that can be killed includes anyone who sympathizes with al-Qaeda or other jihadist groups, and the provision granting the government this authority has no end date, then we are locked in an endless war with an enemy that can never be defeated. Drone strikes will be allowed to continue indefinitely, targeting an ever-widening group of people with ever-weaker connections to the 9/11 attacks or those that planned it.

Brennan also drastically understates the extent to which drones kill innocent civilians and foment anti-Americanism. To his credit, he did not claim that drone strikes had not killed a civilian in more than a year, as the CIA did last year. Estimates of how many innocents have been killed vary, but all independent observers agree that American definitions of who is a militant are impossibly broad and that drone strikes have killed dozens, if not hundreds, of innocent civilians. A study by the New America Foundation put the number at 320, whereas a Pakistani activist has reached an even higher figure. The specific number is not as important as the acknowledgement that Brennan’s assertion that drones can “...distinguish more effectively between an al-Qa’ida terrorist and innocent civilians...” is demonstrably false. Furthermore, even if we were prepared to ignore these civilian casualties in the name of greater security for American citizens, much, if not all, of that enhanced security is eroded by the powerful anti-Americanism that drone strikes create in Pakistan, Yemen, and other nations. Viewed in this light, drone strikes are powerfully counterproductive.

Finally, Brennan’s speech built upon the faulty logic of his colleague, Attorney General Eric Holder, in justifying drone strikes against American citizens suspected of collaboration with al-Qaeda. As he argued in a March speech at Northwestern University, Attorney General Holder (and presumably his boss, President Obama) believes that the Constitution’s guarantee of due process does not necessarily guarantee judicial process. For American citizens accused of being members of al-Qaeda, this means that their fate can be decided by a secretive panel within the National Security Council, which makes recommendations to the President. Thus, an American citizen can be sentenced to a violent death on the strength of secret evidence reviewed by a secret panel, the members of which are not made public. True to form, the White House refuses even to acknowledge the existence of such a panel. Essentially the Obama Administration has asserted that it can replace the right of an American citizen to see the evidence against him and be tried by a jury of his peers with a secret process of secret evidence, the results and deliberations of which are never made public. This is an incredibly sweeping assertion of executive power, and it should be concerning to all American citizens. Brennan’s speech today will be touted as an example of the Obama Administration’s transparent approach to the drone war, but given its shortcomings, Americans should demand a much more thorough accounting of President Obama’s understanding of his powers and their limits - if any remain.    

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