23 May 2013

Obama pledges limits to drone strikes in new terror policy

More transparency, stricter controls. President Obama promises to be more open about America’s fight against terrorism – in an effort to regain his credibility in an increasingly dangerous world.

He’s fighting scandals at home – and a reputation for bullying abroad. Now President Obama has promised to be more open about America’s counter-terrorism strategy, including stricter limits on the use of lethal drones.

In a major foreign policy speech at the National Defence University, Mr Obama is setting out to prove that his administration is fully committed to defending civil liberties, in an effort to avert a crisis of legitimacy over his policies.

In a departure from the existing policy, he said that drone strikes would be limited to times when Americans faced an “imminent” threat, and there would be no strikes against terror suspects when capture was possible.

He inisted that the use of drones was lawful, under both American and international law, defending their deployment even against US citizens who were determined to be planning attacks against their homeland.

“We have now been at war for over a decade”, he said. “We are safer, because of our efforts”. However he reminded the nation they were still under threat, from Benghazi to Boston.

We are safer, because of our efforts. President Obama

But, the president said that America’s counterterrorism strategy had moved beyond what he called a “boundless global war on terror”, to a series of targeted efforts against specific networks overseas.

And he highlighted the new, more diverse threats to US security, including homegrown terrorists: “Deranged or alienated individuals, often US citizens or legal residents – can do enormous damage”.

Critics have focused on the aggressive use of unmanned drone aircraft, a Bush era policy which has been scaled up dramatically since Obama came to office.

Opponents claim the strategy has only served to create more enemies and alienate American allies. And now, to compound the air of unease, the attorney general Eric Holder has admitted that four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes since 2009.

Americans killed in drone strikes

In a letter to congressional leaders, Mr Holder said that US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, said to be the face of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, was deliberately killed. Three other Americans who died had not been targeted, he went on.

That would seem to contradict a statement made by the head of the CIA John Brennan in 2011, when he was the White House counter-terrorism chief, defending the accuracy of drone strikes. “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop”, he said.

Many of the drone strikes have been personally authorised by the president. Last year he told CNN it was a delicate balance: “It’s very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means. That’s not been our tradition. That’s not who we are as a nation.”

Outspoken critics include Republican senator Rand Paul, who managed a thirteen hour filibuster in the Senate to show off his opposition to drones. But many leading Democrats have also expressed their concerns.

Illegal, unneccessary, and out of control. Harold Koh, former state department lawyer

Harold Koh, who was the most senior lawyer in the state department during Obama’s first term, gave a highly critical speech at Oxford University earlier this month, where he warned of a “growing perception that the programme is not lawful and neccessary, but illegal, unneccessary, and out of control.”

Liberals have also been dismayed over Obama’s failure to make good his promise to shut down the US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay: now there are a series of new pledges on its future.

The future of Guantanamo

Now there is a new promise. “As President, I have tried to close Guantanamo”, Obama declared: “There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened”.

The president called for restrictions on detainee transfers to be lifted, and said he had asked the department of defence to designate a site in the United States to hold military commissions. “Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system.”

America’s sense of justice, he said, should prevail over the force feeding of detainees who were stuck in limbo. “Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

However, all this is set against an unwelcome backdrop of domestic scandal, which – although there is no ‘smoking gun’ linking any of it to the White House – has helped to create a general impression of state secrecy and intimidation.

America, we have faced down dangers far greater than al Qaeda. President Obama

There has been unprecedented scrutiny into perceived national security leaks: in fact, under Obama, the department of justice has mounted more prosecutions on suspected leaks than every other administration put together.

There has been outcry over revelations that the DoJ secretly obtained thousands of transcripts from at least 20 phone numbers used by Associated Press reporters, as part of a national security leak investigation.

It has emerged that the records included private phone numbers, including one belonging to an AP reporter’s parents in Staten Island. The DoJ also secretly read private emails of a Fox News reporter, and tracked some of his movements.

President Obama said he was troubled that leak investigations could hamper the kind of investigative journalism that held government accountable. He said the attorney general would be reviewing the guidelines for investigating reporters, and would meet with media firms, reporting back in July.

Big Brother society

At the same time a criminal hearing is investigating the Inland Revenue Service over revelations that they targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups for extra tax scrutiny.

The official in charge, Lois Lerner, has now been recalled to the House Panel, after she tried to plead the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify.

President Obama, however, continues to ride high in the polls. The latest survey from the Washington Post gives him a 51 per cent approval rating, mainly because of his performance on job creation.

Yet the prospect of a Big Brother society, snooping on private phone calls, rifling through opponents’ tax records, and never mind the First Amendment, cannot be good for his reputation in the long term.

A clear commitment to transparency, at the very least, is a start. And with it, a real effort to overcome that sense of paranoia about secrecy, and put his own leadership team, rather than obsessive officials, firmly in control.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News