Just a roundup of a few analyses by others of the president’s counterterrorism policies speech that I believe are notable and astute; namely, two writers at Lawfare Blog (a series of posts by Benjamin Wittes and one post by John Bellinger).
Benjamin Wittes, Pt1 reaction:
If there was a unifying theme of President Obama’s speech today at the National Defense University, it was an effort to align himself as publicly as possible with the critics of the positions his administration is taking without undermining his administration’s operational flexibility in actual fact. To put it crassly, the president sought to rebuke his own administration for taking the positions it has—but also to make sure that it could continue to do so.
A great deal of the President’s speech was noise—noise in the form of broad, overarching accounts of his strategic vision, noise in the form of continuous veiled (or not-so-veiled) criticisms of his predecessor’s strategic vision and fidelity to American values, and noise in the form of apparent changes in policy that in actual fact change very little.
The President presents himself throughout the speech as bringing this war to a close:
Obama does not need Congress to narrow or repeal the AUMF or to get off of a war footing. He can do it himself, declaring hostilities over in whole or in part. And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that. To the contrary, he promised that “we must finish the work of defeating al Qaeda and its associated forces” and while he used a lot of nice words about law enforcement and a lot of disparaging words about perpetual states of war, he also promised to continue targeting the enemy with lethal force under the AUMF. In other words, he promised—without quite saying it directly—to keep waging war
Pt2, regarding Gitmo detainees:
Obama once again pontificated a fair bit about the need to close the site,
The trouble is that, as Wells pointed out earlier, Obama proposes nothing—nothing—concerning how to deal with those whom his own review task force deemed too dangerous to release but not plausible to bring to trial. The only thing he could say on that subject was that “once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.”
And what basis for confidence could he possibly have on that score? It’s not as though these cases have never been reviewed before.
There is only one way to resolve this problem other than maintaining a group of people in custody whom one cannot try: That is not maintaing that group of people in custody. But is Obama really going to free Abu Zubayda–against whom I have not seen a criminal case materialize? What about Mohammed Qatani, the would-be 9/11 hijacker turned away from this country’s borders in Orlando with Mohammed Atta waiting for him on the other side of customs? What about the nearly 50 people whom the task force determined could not be tried but who pose real risks—and the additional people whom the task force believed could face trial but for whom that assessment proved optimistic? Until the president is willing to say that he means to set these people free, he should cut out the pieties about what sort of country we are—or would be if only a certain group of retrogrades would stop him from closing Guantanamo.
Perhaps the most puzzling and opaque aspect of President Obama’s speech today involves the question of whether he did, or didn’t, narrow the criteria for targeting in drone strikes. The wording of the speech on this point is incredibly careful, and to parse it, one has to read it next to prior administration statements on targeting rules
There are a number of areas in the president’s speech yesterday in which Obama publicly aligns himself with critics of his administration, while promising in hard terms very little. As I described yesterday, he spent a lot of time criticizing the idea of endless war under the AUMF—while not concretely committing himself to ending hostilities. He criticized Guantanamo and indefinite detention, without promising to release detainees who pose a serious threat yet cannot face trial.
One of the more blatant of these areas is Obama’s comments about the idea of additional review mechanisms for drone strikes:
Going forward, I have asked my Administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress. Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice. For example, the establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process, but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority. Another idea that’s been suggested—the establishment of an independent oversight board in the executive branch—avoids those problems, but may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national-security decision-making, without inspiring additional public confidence in the process. Despite these challenges, I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these—and other—options for increased oversight.
Notice here what the president is not promising. He is not promising to support a drone court. He is not promising to support proposals like Neal Katyal’s or Jen Daskal’s for an enhanced, court-like internal executive review mechanism. He is only promising to have his administration “review [such] proposals” and saying that he will “actively engag[ing] with Congress to explore” such ideas.
Nobody can possibly object to this, and I certainly don’t, but it is notable that the president nowhere hints what sort of outcome he expects from his engagement. This is a way of signaling respect for the ideas—and the underlying idea that he needs to be on the side of “increased oversight”—without actually committing his administration to doing anything concrete.
the actions the President announced with respect to Guantanamo are simply to re-start actions that he had stopped, including appointing a special envoy at the State Department and Defense Department (two envoys?) to handle transfers; lifting the moratorium on transfers to Yemen; transferring detainees who have been cleared for release; and insisting on judicial review for every detainee. After four years, he still does not offer any suggestions for dangerous detainees who cannot be prosecuted. And the President’s stated desire to “ultimately repeal” the AUMF, while candy for the President’s political base, leaves unclear what authority he will rely on to continue to conduct drone strikes or to detain members of al Qaida who are not prosecuted.
The Ugly. Much of the speech is filled with platitudes and political bones for the base, such as the commitment to repeal the AUMF and to require the Attorney General to review guidelines for investigations of the media. Unfortunately, the President continued to go out of his way to blame and caricature the Bush Administration, including by repeating the canard that the Obama Administration is engaged in “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks” as opposed to a “boundless ‘global war on terrorism.’” (In fact, I made clear in numerous speeches between 2005-2009 that the phrase “Global War on Terror” was a rhetorical term and that the Bush Administration considered itself to be a legal state of armed conflict with al Qaida and its affiliates.) Obama Administration officials have emphasized how Obama policies (especially drone policies) have evolved during the first term, while refusing to acknowledge the similar evolution in counterterrorism policies during the Bush Administration.
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.