Later Thursday, in a major speech on current U.S. counter-terrorism policy, President Barack Obama will take concrete steps to try to reverse the impression that he has continued, rather than halted, some of the more controversial policies launched by his predecessor in waging the global ‘war on terror.’
To begin, it is reported that Mr. Obama will reiterate a pledge to close the prison for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The delay in implementing this 2008 election promise has disillusioned many U.S. liberals, and raised questions about the current government’s commitment to the rule of law.
More significantly, the President will seek to establish greater transparency and oversight concerning the administration’s controversial targeted killing program. Yesterday, Mr. Obama’s attorney-general began this process by openly admitting, for the first time, that the U.S. government has approved the killing of at least four U.S. citizens in countries “outside of areas of active hostilities” (i.e., Pakistan and Yemen), for the purposes of countering alleged terrorist threats. In his letter to Congress, Eric Holder named Anwar al-Awlaki, along with three others, as victims of U.S. drone strikes. He also strongly defended the targeted killing of Mr. al-Alwaki, drawing on criteria already set out in the leaked Justice Department white paper of February, 2013. Mr. al-Awlaki, he insisted, was a senior al-Qaeda operative – its “chief of external operations” – who posed “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans,” and who could not feasibly be captured. Moreover, according to Mr. Holder, the U.S. strikes had been conducted in accordance with the laws of war – most notably the principles of necessity, distinction (i.e, non-combatant immunity), and proportionality. The imminent threat to American lives was evident, the attorney-general alleged, in Mr. al-Alwaki’s involvement in planning the bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009, and his key role in the October 2010 plot to blow up cargo planes bound for the United States.
These admissions will likely not satisfy many critics of the administration’s targeted killing policy – a policy that the president will reiterate is an important tool in the U.S. counter-terrorism’s arsenal (at least for now). Legitimate questions will be raised about how ‘imminence’ is being defined, and how seriously the U.S. pursues capture. But there are certain ‘facts’ that cannot be so easily countered, and which constitute promising steps in a better direction.
First, the number of drone strikes has been declining (from its high in the 2009-2012) period. Secondly, it is reported that the administration will curtail its use of so-called “signature strikes” – controversial attacks on groups of suspected terrorists, rather than the specific killing of individual “high value” targets. Third, the president will announce that relevant congressional committees will be notified and briefed on a detailed (classified) document that institutionalizes the government’s “exacting standards and processes” for approving instances of targeted killing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that these processes and standards aren’t still controversial – but they will be reviewed and debated by the country’s lawmakers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Mr. Obama will likely confirm what has already been reported: that he will shift control of the drone program from the Central Intelligence Agency (which operates with very little oversight) to the Defense Department, where there have been, historically, procedures and rules with respect to the use of lethal force. More generally, John Brennan, the new CIA chief, has claimed that his priority is to return the CIA to its more traditional tasks (intelligence gathering and analysis), thereby curtailing the highly controversial paramilitary role it has assumed over the last decade as part of its counterterrorism agenda. (For a fascinating account of how the CIA got into this business, see Mark Mazetti’s new book, The Way of the Knife.)
We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the U.S. is declaring that the ‘war on terror’ is over. Nevertheless, reports suggest that Mr. Obama’s speech will hint at a date when this epic struggle might come to an end. It is difficult to imagine his predecessor taking this step. In addition, it appears the administration may be starting to re-orient its understanding of counterterrorism, by downplaying the ‘war paradigm’ (except in relation to operations in countries such as Afghanistan) and adopting more of a ‘peacetime’ or ‘law enforcement’ paradigm. In this latter framework, targeted killing is not strictly prohibited (see, for example, See Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials), but the use of lethal force in self-defence is extremely rare and highly circumscribed. And so it should be.
Is this a U.S. administration that listens to its critics? The steps taken this week suggest that it might be. But we still have a long way to go. The ‘war paradigm’ is deeply embedded in the American psyche, and in many U.S. institutions. What is clear is that Mr. Obama’s government cares about its image – particularly in relation to the previous one of George W. Bush.
Jennifer M. Welsh is Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College. This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and their international-affairs hub OpenCanada.