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      Tide Turning Against Counterterrorism Secrecy

      President Obama speaks about his administration’s drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, May 23, 2013.

      President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on counterterrorism revealed a commander-in-chief increasingly worried about political criticism of his Guantanamo detentions, his penchant for secrecy and his drone warfare policies. Where Obama has shielded his policies on the basis of external terrorist threats, he now is responding to critics who threaten to upset domestic support for those policies abroad.

      In past years, Obama has defended himself against attacks from neo-conservative hawks and senators like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham, who charged him with being “soft” on terrorism. But today, while defending his military policies as constitutional, the president was promising to wind down the “forever war,” sharply reduce drone attacks, repatriate detainees to Yemen, and move again to close Guantanamo. When disrupted by Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin, Obama spontaneously said that Benjamin was “worth paying attention to,” and was “willing to cut the young lady who interrupted [him] some slack because it’s worth being passionate about.”

      Code Pink's Medea Benjamin, center, demonstrates during President Obama's speech at the National Defense University in Washington, May 23, 2013.Such a gesture will hardly pacify Code Pink or the president’s antiwar critics. But their criticisms have become a factor in the national debate. To criticize the president’s speech as “nothing new” is to miss the primary reason for which the speech was given: to explain a careful withdrawal from the Global War on Terrorism paradigm, the heinous impasse at Guantanamo, and the massive secrecy around drones. 

      The President was cautious in explaining his pivot toward de-escalation, mindful that incidents like Benghazi or the Boston Marathon bombings can block his de-escalation path, or at least complicate it severely. 

      The speech, along with Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter and background briefings, for the first time revealed the following: 

      • Obama let it be known that the CIA will cede its control of the drone war to the Pentagon in six months, opening the way to greater public transparency and overdue congressional debate – Pentagon budgets can be amended while CIA items are unmentionable secrets in Washington;
      • Obama called the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force “near obsolete” and proposed its eventual repeal; 
      • Clarified that drones will not be used after American ground forces leave Afghanistan, a signal the Taliban and Pakistan will hear; 
      • Vowed to “limit the use of lethal force” to only those targets considered to be ”continuing, imminent threat(s) to Americans,” which could “signal an end” (according to the New York Times) of so-called ‘signature strikes’ or where the threats are to partner-states but not American personnel;
      • Acknowledged for the first time that US drone attacks have killed civilians.
      • Declassified the official information that the US killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other Americans;
      • Dropped its judicial effort to block a California lawsuit seeking materials related to al-Awlaki’s killing; 
      • Announced consultations with the media and a report on new whistleblower guidelines by July 12;
      • Appointed a new State Department official “to achieve the transfer” of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo. 

      The ramifications of the Obama speech and Holder letter will be felt in the weeks ahead. Asked if there will be effects on existing human rights cases, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) said, “It does, because they never admitted to killing Abdul Rahman, the teenager, in the court papers, nor did they acknowledge that they killed people that they were not targeting. I have a sense that their legal justifications are going to shift, but not sure to what. (It) may be clearer in the coming weeks.”

      In a related development, federal judge Rosemary Collyer required the Justice Department to report in two weeks on how the admissions affected the legal issues in the case. While defining al-Awlaki as a justifiable security threat, the administration now says the other three deaths, including aw-Awlaki’s 16-year old son, were not specifically targeted, raising the question of whether the administration will be held accountable in the federal court. 

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      Reader Comments (5)

      What do we know for sure: the number of drone attacks has diminished over the last two years, the President has asked Congress to reduce the unilateral and virtually unlimited license (AUMF) of the POTUS to assassinate anyone without due process, and the number of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been greatly reduced. This is a good thing and, as Tom Hayden says, at least in part a response to unrelenting protest by Code Pink and many other organizations and individuals in the peace and justice movements.

      What we also should know is that there are systemic reasons for our military engagements around the world that underlie the strategies and tactics of the use of force. The policies of a 21st century imperial power, with hundreds of military bases and all sorts of "assets" around the world is driven to protect the geo-political and economic interests of the owning and investing class. Let's celebrate our efforts to limit the most egregious invasions & assassinations, but let's also continue our efforts to replace rapacious disaster capitalism with political and economic structures that operate under an entirely different set of principles and values (e.g., equity, democracy, sustainability, cooperation, family, community, solidarity, etc.)

      May 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Schnapp

      This is encouraging. This is the President I voted for and hope he continues in this direction for the rest of his term.

      May 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Klopfer

      Obama continued to insist today his war goal is to “dismantle” Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and their “associated networks”as if their members for some unknown reason decided to kill Americans. Ideologically, the Lesser Evil and his stenographers in the media carefully avoid recognizing the bombers’ clearly declared reason: to retaliate against the US invasions of Muslim nations and US support of the Israel and sheikdoms like the House of Saud. The blowback will continue until he ends his war for hegemony.-MM

      May 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike Munk

      While it is a move in the right direction it is not moving fast enough for me. Your articles Tom Hayden are always well reasoned and a pleasure to read. This one of mine is tackling the problem at grass roots level.


      I am asking myself if it would be irresponsible to publish the names and addresses of the board of directors of UAV Engines Limited. They seem to have no conscience that other people's lives are daily under threat.

      May 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Goss

      Before everyone gets all hopey-changey about Obama's speech, there is something to consider about his motivations: Seems that an indictment is being sought against him for murder of civilians in Yemen and Pakistan, and it may well be that he is worried about it.

      While, under the constitution, a sitting president can't be criminally prosecuted, he does, in fact, become vulnerable on January 20, 2017. And that is a fact that must surely be weighing on his mind as that date draws ever nearer.

      May 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScott Bidstrup
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