President Obama managed to deliver a speech on Thursday in many ways reminiscent of the rhetoric employed by candidate Obama, condemning the recklessness of the previous administration, hailing the rule of law, and citing James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
But whereas Obama made the right sounds, history shows his words fall far short, and often contradict, his actions as president. When he wasn’t using such rhetoric, he was dodging the truth on issues including drone warfare, Guantanamo Bay and indefinite detention, the AUMF, and how to prevent terrorism so as to not always be fighting it.
The Drone War
According to the president, when the option of “detention and prosecution of terrorists…is foreclosed” because “they take refuge in remote tribal regions” where “the state lacks the capacity or will to take action,” his administration chooses to secretly use drones to bomb targets as opposed to deploying boots on the ground to apprehend the suspects.
We’ve heard this justification for the drone war before, but there are two main problems to start with. First, this explanation simply assumes the validity of the targeting process. It is quite plainly inconsistent with the rule of law for the unchallenged executive branch accusations against mostly unnamed suspects to be sufficient for a death warrant by covert assassination.
As Rosa Brooks, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, told a Senate committee last month, “When a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
According to reports, of the 3,000-4,000 people killed in drone attacks under Obama, less than 2 percent were described by the government’s own classified documents as senior members of al-Qaeda. The rest were either mid-level operatives, unidentified clumps of people killed in “signature strikes,” or civilians.
Secondly, just because President Obama identifies some logistical obstacles in apprehending mere suspects doesn’t give him the right to bypass the rule of law. What limited legal restrictions on Executive power we do have are not measly options for him to either take or not. They aren’t suggestions. They are the law.