War Stories

Obama’s Post-9/11 World

While the president said nothing new about drone strikes, he appears ready to take real risks to close Gitmo.

President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013.

President Barack Obama speaks about his administration’s counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, May 23, 2013.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

President Obama’s speech today on U.S. counterterrorism policy was actually two speeches in one. The first outlined a supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes that was neither new nor restrictive. The second called for shutting down the Guantánamo detention center—not a new position for the president but the revival of a long-dormant one, unfurled in blazing colors along with a vision of a genuinely new way of approaching global terrorism.

In the days leading up to the speech, drones were assumed to be the main topic—specifically, whether and how to change the practice of using drones to kill terrorist suspects in countries outside formal war zones, namely, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. These strikes have aroused intense bitterness abroad and growing controversy at home.

Early on in his speech, Obama defended the use of drones, noting that they are often the only way to kill people who are planning attacks on the United States and that, while these weapons sometimes kill innocent civilians, they kill far fewer civilians than other forms of military power, such as conventional airstrikes or troop incursions on the ground.

But then, Obama conceded that these weapons had to be subjected to restrictions, lest they be used too casually. Specifically, it had to be determined that the person killed poses a “continuing, imminent threat” against the United States; that capturing the person alive was infeasible; and that there was “near certainty” that the strike would kill or injure no civilians.

This sounds reasonable, except that these same standards were outlined—with much of the exact same language—in an unclassified 16-page “white paper” that the Justice Department released back in February. And the way that the paper defined those terms rendered the restrictions meaningless.

Key to this loophole was—and presumably still is—the definition of “imminent threat.” As the white paper put it, “The condition that an operational leader [of al-Qaida or an affiliated organization] presents an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack … will take place in the immediate future.”

So, “imminent” doesn’t really mean imminent.

The paper’s logic was this. Al-Qaida is “continually planning strikes” against the United States. “By its nature, therefore,” an assessment of its threats “demands a broad concept of imminence.” In other words, the threat of an attack is always imminent; it’s a condition, not a restriction.

Similarly, because the threat is always imminent, the Justice Department paper went on, “the United States is likely to have only a limited window of opportunity” to mobilize a raid to capture the terrorist. Therefore, it is always “infeasible” to capture rather than kill.

Obama’s (and the white paper’s) third condition for launching a drone strike—a near certainty that no innocents are killed in the attack—is a real restriction, and the Obama administration does seem to be at least trying to abide by it. According to data gathered from open sources by three private research organizations—the New America Foundation, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Long War Journal—the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically in the past few years. So far this year, the estimates of civilian deaths range from zero to 11. In part, this is due to the fact that there have been only 12 drone strikes in Pakistan in 2013—which means, by the way, that there might have been, on average, as many as one civilian killed in nearly every strike.

It is hard to gauge these estimates because the administration does not release figures about drone strikes in Pakistan or how many people they’ve killed—because all drone strikes outside war zones (that is, outside Afghanistan) are covert operations conducted not by the military but by the CIA. Everything about them, therefore, is classified.

This is another way in which Obama’s speech was disappointing. At a background press briefing held just two hours in advance of the speech, “senior administration officials” said that the president would “express preference” for putting the U.S. military, not the CIA, in charge of these sorts of strikes. The officials did not specify which part of the military—the regional combatant commands (which might be less likely to launch attacks across borders) or the Joint Special Operations Command (which has authority to wage secret strikes against al-Qaida worldwide). But still, this would be a change that would probably widen oversight.

However, President Obama’s speech said nothing about this issue. (An official told me afterward that there’s still an internal debate on the subject.) Nor did it say anything about banning or restricting “signature strikes”—the phrase used for strikes aimed not at specific individuals but rather at people whose behavior bears the “signature” of terrorists, even if their names or precise roles in the terrorist network are unknown.

In short, the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes.

However, Obama did deflect some of the criticism he’s received on drones, noting that the relevant congressional committees had been briefed on all strikes outside Iraq and Afghanistan—“every strike,” he emphasized—including the one that targeted and killed an American citizen. If you have a problem with these strikes, he seemed to be saying, don’t blame me alone.

Obama also took after Congress when he spoke about Gitmo. He’d called for shutting down the prison shortly after he took office, and he’d started to continue President Bush’s practice of shipping some of the detainees to other countries, but Congress blocked him on both counts. In today’s speech, he announced that he was going to give it another try, even appointing senior envoys at the Departments of State and Defense to move detainees abroad, figuring out a site where they can be secured in the United States, and lifting the moratorium on transfers of detainees to Yemen.

Obama noted that America’s civilian courts have prosecuted hundreds of terrorists and that no one has ever escaped from any of the “super prisons” on U.S. soil where many of these terrorists now sit, behind bars, for life. What will the world think, what will we think of ourselves, if 10 years from now, Gitmo—a poster for terrorist recruitment—still holds more than 100 detainees who have long been cleared to go? “Is this who we are?” he asked. “Is this the America we want to leave our children?”

Someday, he added, the war on terror will be over. This doesn’t mean there will be no more acts of terror. There will always be terror, he said, recounting the many acts that took place—and killed Americans—in the 1980s and ’90s, before the phrase “war on terror” was invented. For now, the United States must still respond with drone strikes and other displays of military power, but it must also deal with the grievances that animate terrorist ideology. In the long term, he said, victory over terrorists will come with American “resilience,” the determination to go on with our lives and freedom.

Twice toward the end of the speech, a fiery protester named Medea Benjamin rose and started shouting from the audience about the shame of Gitmo. As she was politely led out, Obama let her speak. He then said, off script, that he was doing so because, while he didn’t agree with everything she’d said, “the voice of that woman is worth paying attention to.”

The crowd at National Defense University applauded when he said that. The section about Gitmo—especially the line about shutting it down—was the only part of the speech that prompted applause.

After the speech, Republican Rep. Mac Thornberry, who serves as vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, complained on CNN that the president wanted to return to “a pre-9/11 world.” But one theme that Obama conveyed clearly in his speech was the need to move on to a post-9/11 world, one that recognized the continuing threat of terrorism but that also basked in our ability to deal with it and to defeat it—indeed, to defeat it by dealing with it. He allowed that he didn’t have all the answers but that it was time to start debating the notion. The real question, which Rep. Thornberry was evading, is whether Congress is ready.