President Barack Obama, who received the Nobel Peace Prize at the start of his first term in 2009, took the oath of office at his second inaugural ceremony on January 20, 2013, with his hand on two bibles; one belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other was owned by President Abraham Lincoln. Obama’s use of the bibles was a poignant symbolic gesture intended to indicate that his second term would stand for unity, peace and freedom. He declared in his inaugural address that: “A decade of war is now ending” and that the U.S. “will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”
But at the very same time, the White House was planning policies intended to strike fear into millions. John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and architect of the administration’s drone warfare and “targeted assassination” campaign, was orchestrating an expanding drone strike operation in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Mali, as well reconnaissance missions in other parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa. President Obama’s promise to bring an end to a decade of war and resolve to try to peacefully settle differences, unfortunately, does not line up with his actions.
The Obama administration has kept the details of its drone warfare program classified. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2012 that President Obama even acknowledged the existence of the operation. In justification for using drones to eliminate members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he said: “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one we’re already engaging in.” But from the information that has been disclosed, the president’s “secret war’” has resulted in scores of drone strikes that have killed thousands of noncombatants. In fact, as the president was being inaugurated, the number of drone strikes in Pakistan was on pace to be a record one-month total of six attacks in a nine day span. Yemen also sustained eight drone strikes in January; the highest number in seven months, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Again, contrary to Obama’s end of war pronouncement, Brennan declared “we are done in Afghanistan, but Yemen has some thousands of al-Qaeda.”American drone support of France’s invasion of Mali – which violated the U.N. Security Council’s resolution that only authorized African-led forces to intervene in the territorial dispute – and the recent revelation that the U.S. has maintained a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia for two years is further evidence that instead of declining, the Obama administration is steadily expanding surveillance and warfare to many other parts of the world. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “[o]ver the last ten years, drones have become a critical tool in the war against terrorist and militant organizations worldwide. Their advantages over other weapons and intelligence systems are well known.
President Obama’s selection of Brennan to be the new director of the CIA can reasonably be interpreted as a signal of his determination to further escalate the use of drones in the so-called war on terror. Indeed, as was described by one administration official, unmanned drones is the “new” Air Force.
In anticipation that the president’s drone warfare policy would take center stage during Brennan’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the administration sought to legitimize his appointment by releasing a confidential Justice Department “white paper” memorandum that presented the administration’s case for killing American citizens.
The white paper, which summarized the classified official policy memorandum, articulated a broad claim of power to kill American citizens who are suspected of being involved in terrorist activities was sobering. It states that: “The condition that an operational leader present an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” This is “a remarkably elastic definition of imminence,” wrote Eugene Robinson, “which, you may be surprised to learn, apparently does not mean ‘in the immediate future.’”
In practice, the administration’s drone policy broadly encompasses anyone even suspected of association with any designated ‘terrorist’ organization, such as the 16 year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American member of al-Qaeda. Two weeks after al-Awlaki was taken out by a drone, the U.S. deliberately targeted and killed his son in another drone strike although he had no known involvement with any terror group. Incredibly, a former administration official justified the murder of the teenager on the grounds that al-Awlaki caused his son’s death because he irresponsibly became a terrorist.
War and non-war crimes
Brennan’s confirmation hearing had a raucous start that was initially interrupted by protesters who denounced Obama’s drone warfare program and shouted that Brennan was a war criminal. Although the media predicted that Brennan would be subjected to some tough questioning by committee members about the details of the secret war, he actually received rather deferential treatment from both Democrats and Republicans during the hearing. From all appearances it seemed clear to observers that he would sail through the confirmation process with few objections from “’sanctioned”’ critics, when unexpectedly, senators from the President’s Democrat party threatened to hold up the nomination in protest of the White House’s refusal to produce the legal opinions that justified the killing of Americans. Democrat Senator Ron Wyden expressed a reluctance to allow Brennan’s confirmation to proceed because “I still have a number of unanswered questions about the president’s authority to kill Americans who are deemed to be a threat to the United States.” Considering the gravity of extra-judicial killing, the criteria the administration uses to determine whether killing an American citizen is justified is critically important.
Rather than make full disclosure, the president initially opted to withhold the legal opinions and resorted to a circumvention tactic by offering to produce more information on the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, Republicans had demanded in connection with Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary. “The strategy is intended to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Mr. Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department’s legal advice to the president,” according to NY Times reporters Scott Shane and mark Mazzetti. This maneuver was geared to assure Brennan’s nomination would go to full S for a vote even if one or more Democrat senators vote no. The tactic did not work, however. Senate Republicans continued to demand disclosure of the opinions on the grounds that the administration’s refusal to produce the documents considered vital to American citizens’ fundamental Constitutional rights to life and liberty cast serious doubt on the legality and morality of the targeted killing program. The president finally relented and provided the legal opinions to the Committee.
Republican Senator Rand Paul was still not satisfied and asked whether the administration believed it had the legal authority to order a targeted strike against an American citizen in the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder responded that the administration “believes it could technically use military force to kill an American on U.S. soil in an ‘extraordinary circumstance’ but has ‘no intention of doing so’”. In a last ditch effort to stall confirmation, Senator Paul filibustered Brennan’s nomination for twelve hours before yielding. Brennan’s nomination to be CIA Director was confirmed the next day.
As Director of the CIA, it is all but guaranteed that Brennan will expand the agency’s involvement in drone warfare and paramilitary activities more than any time in its history; an unprecedented departure from its traditional role to gather intelligence and conduct covert operations. The CIA and the military have always had a close relationship and sometimes their operations overlapped. After 9/11 however, the agency’s mission took a dramatic shift toward fighting terrorists and insurgents. Under Obama, the agency’s role as a paramilitary force was significantly enhanced by CIA director General David Petraeus who’s military background naturally influenced it to transform from “being the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers,” to a greater involvement in paramilitary activities. To accomplish this, a large fleet of drones were acquired to meet the needs of its ever-expanding unmanned aircraft missions. Recent develops clearly indicate that Obama tapped Brennan to continue the transformation of “its core competencies of human intelligence collection and intelligence analysis…to playing second fiddle to covert warfare,.” noted TheHill.com.
Only about 2% of those killed by drone attacks since 2004 have been classified as “high-level targets“, according to a study released by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The remaining 98% of the estimated 3,279 people that have been killed so far, reports NewsAmerica, whether classified as militants or not, were innocent civilians. Those numbers fly in the face of the administration’s claims that the drones’ capability of making surgical strikes has resulted in minimal collateral damage. It is important to understand that when it comes to tabulating drone deaths, as noted by Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com, the Obama administration utilizes a controversial definition of ‘“militant‘” as being “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In other words, anyone within the vicinity of a high value target at the time he is disintegrated by a drone is ‘guilty by association” and deemed to be a militant who was probably “up to no good.” One administration official complained that: “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.” This absurd classification of innocent by-standers as enemy militants has resulted in a substantial under-count of civilian casualties. Two prestigious law school studies concurred that the “strikes have killed far more [innocent] people than the United States has acknowledged.”
Although the actual number of civilians killed may never be made public, Brennan’s claims in 2012 that “not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes” and that only in “exceedingly rare” instances have civilians been “accidentally injured, or worst, killed in these strikes” were as patently false as another administration official’s claim that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, according to CNN, was in the “single digits”.
“If George W. Bush had told us that the ‘war on terror’ gave him the right to execute an American citizen overseas with a missile fired from a drone aircraft, without due process or judicial review, I’d have gone ballistic,” wrote Robinson. “It makes no difference that the president making this chilling claim is Barack Obama…What’s wrong is wrong.” The indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians with drones is likewise wrong.
Obama’s drone policy gives credence to critics who said that it was premature to bestow the Peace Prize on President Obama because he has exceeded Bush’s war-mongering policies.
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