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


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.

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.

This article appeared at Tikun Olam

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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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