Activists Cause Partial Victories on Guantanamo and Drones
In a speech at the National Defense University President Obama announced steps he will be immediately taking to shrink the number of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and set up new rules for the drone program. These are two victories for activists who have been protesting both. While not complete victories, Obama is being forced in our direction. Today, the protests continued as the picture below shows, outside of the speech, as well as inside, as Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODE PINK interrupted Obama several times over Guantanamo and drones. Obama was forced to respond to her complaints and to take her comments seriously. Below is a transcript of the event by The Guardian.
Protesters outside of Ft. McNair where President Obama spoke urged an end to lethal drone strikes. Photo Reuters.
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The Guardian, May 23, 2013
The full text of the president’s speech is here.
Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill flags the president’s important announcement that he will lift a moratorium on the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen:
Obama cannot close Guantanamo without the support of Congress, which is not forthcoming and not likely to be in the near future.
But what he can do, as he announced today, is to transfer some of the remaining 166 detainees.
He announced he is lifting a moratorium on the transfer of detainees to Yemen that was imposed in 2012 after the Yemen underwear bomber plot and look at transfers to other countries.
What this means is that about 50-60 detainees are almost certain to be sent from Guantanamo to Yemen. That will help get the total at Guantanamo down to around 100.
About 40 others will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. In the end, though, there are an estimated 60, most of them held in the supermax detention centre in Guantanamo, separate from the other prisoners. The US deems them to be too dangerous to release.
Obama, while admitting he has no immediate solution to those in the supermax, suggested that they be dealt with by courts in the US just as other terrorists have been.
The problem with this is that Congress will not agree to the transfer of these detainees to the mainland in any circumstances. Obama couched his appeal in terms of cash, saying Gitmo costs $150 million a year, roughly $1 million per detainee. Even that will not persuade Congress.
The president concludes with a vision of a placid post-terror future:“Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school”:
Now, we need a strategy – and a politics –that reflects this resilient spirit. Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony on a battleship, or a statue being pulled to the ground. Victory will be measured in parents taking their kids to school; immigrants coming to our shores; fans taking in a ballgame; a veteran starting a business; a bustling city street. The quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear – that is both our sword and our shield. And long after the current messengers of hate have faded from the world’s memory, alongside the brutal despots, deranged madmen, and ruthless demagogues who litter history – the flag of the United States will still wave from small-town cemeteries, to national monuments, to distant outposts abroad. And that flag will still stand for freedom.
Obama is done. A brass band plays him off.
Obama presents a memorable image of the judge who sentenced attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid talking about the American flag:
We have prosecuted scores of terrorists in our courts. That includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit; and Faisal Shahzad, who put a car bomb in Times Square. It is in a court of law that we will try Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is accused of bombing the Boston Marathon. Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, is as we speak serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison here, in the United States. In sentencing Reid, Judge William Young told him, “the way we treat you…is the measure of our own liberties.” He went on to point to the American flag that flew in the courtroom – “That flag,” he said, “will fly there long after this is all forgotten. That flag still stands for freedom.”
Guardian correspondent Ewen MacAskill analyzes some of what we’ve heard so far:
Barack Obama has come close to declaring The Long War – the war on terror – is over.
It is an important declaration. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, military and foreign affairs analysts were predicting the war would last for decades.
But Obama said: “Today, the core of al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat.”
This might sound dangerously complacent, comparable to George W. Bush’s desperately premature ‘mission completed’ speech about Iraq in 2003.
What Obama is saying is something different, something important. There has been skepticism from soon after the Long War that the phrase ‘war on terror’ or even ‘The Long War’ were overblown, turning al-Qaida into something bigger than it actually is.
He wants in future a strategy that is “proportionate and smart”. Obama is downgrading the threat from overseas. Instead, the real danger is from home-grown terrorists, though often inspired by groups overseas.
That means countering extremism and anti-US elements abroad. It means changing the message, with Obama repeating, as he has said before, the US is not at war with Islam.
This is an important speech, marking a shift in the US attitude to terrorists, a repudiation of the Bush era wars.
The problem with this new approach is that as long as he is pursuing a drones programme and Guantanamo remains open, he is going to continue to alienate many Muslims.
The president falls silent as the protester (same one?) pipes up yet again.
Obama waits. Then he says “You know I think that – and I’m going off script as you might have expected.”
Laughter and applause.
The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said. But these are tough issues. And the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong.
Updated 22m ago
“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike.
“I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack, because it’s worth being passionate about.
“Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
A protester interrupts the president. She yells about the hunger strikers at Guantanamo.
“Why don’t you sit down and I’ll tell you exactly what I’m going to do,” Obama says, annoyed. “You should let me finish my sentence.”
She’s quieted, he resumes.
I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries. Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee
The protester interrupts again. Obama asks to speak.
“This is part of free speech, is you being able to speak. But also you listening, and me being able to speak.”
Lots of applause for the president.
Updated 21m ago
Now the president turns to Guantanamo Bay. He says it hurts the US reputation abroad. He says it violates the country’s founding principles. He says it costs a lot: “$150 million each year to imprison 166 people –almost $1 million per prisoner.”
Obama blames Congress for not closing Guantanamo.
As President, I have tried to close GTMO. I transferred 67 detainees to other countries before Congress imposed restrictions to effectively prevent us from either transferring detainees to other countries, or imprisoning them in the United States. These restrictions make no sense. After all, under President Bush, some 530 detainees were transferred from GTMO with Congress’s support. When I ran for President the first time, John McCain supported closing GTMO.
A strong line, the first applause line:
There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened.
Obama sees an end to America’s never-ending war. He says the existing authorization to use military force can and should be removed at some point. “Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight,” Obama says.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
Good news for the ink-stained wretches. The president says he wants a media shield law, in context of the seizures of AP phone records and other leak investigations:
I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable. Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law.
NB: This is not a war with Islam, Obama says:
The success of American Muslims, and our determination to guard against any encroachments on their civil liberties, is the ultimate rebuke to those who say we are at war with Islam.
Brave new world: On homegrown terrorism, “technology and the Internet increase its frequency and lethality,” Obama says. “Today, a person can consume hateful propaganda, commit themselves to a violent agenda, and learn how to kill without leaving their home.”
Obama makes his first mention of Benghazi, calling on Congress to fund new security for diplomatic outposts:
Over the past decade, we have strengthened security at our Embassies, and I am implementing every recommendation of the Accountability Review Board which found unacceptable failures in Benghazi. I have called on Congress to fully fund these efforts to bolster security, harden facilities, improve intelligence, and facilitate a quicker response time from our military if a crisis emerges.
Obama returns to a theme that it’s actually more dangerous to do nothing – that it’s more dangerous not to have the diplomatic mission in Benghazi:
But even after we take these steps, some irreducible risks to our diplomats will remain. This is the price of being the world’s most powerful nation, particularly as a wave of change washes over the Arab World. And in balancing the trade-offs between security and active diplomacy, I firmly believe that any retreat from challenging regions will only increase the dangers we face in the long run.
Barack Obama addresses an audience at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The president names two options he’s contemplated for improving “oversight of lethal actions outside of warzones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.”
One is a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action– but that raises “serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority.”
The second is the establishment of an independent oversight boardin the executive branch – but that “may introduce a layer of bureaucracy into national-security decision-making.”
The president is talking about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and al Qaeda leader killed by a drone in Yemen. Obama says, with the evidence on his side, that Awlaki “was continuously trying to kill people.”
“As President, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki,” Obama says.
Then Obama says the rules for killing Americans applies “to all potential terrorist targets”:
Of course, the targeting of any Americans raises constitutional issues that are not present in other strikes – which is why my administration submitted information about Awlaki to the Department of Justice months before Awlaki was killed, and briefed the Congress before this strike as well. But the high threshold that we have set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens. This threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life.
Obama elaborates on the “strong oversight” in place in the White House:
After I took office, my Administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress. Let me repeat that – not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. That includes the one instance when we targeted an American citizen: Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.
This week, I authorized the declassification of this action, and the deaths of three other Americans in drone strikes, to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue, and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims. For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or a shotgun – without due process. Nor should any President deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.
US president Barack Obama speaks at the National Defense University on counter-terrorism. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Obama says there’s been “strong oversight” of drone strikes. “I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action,” he says.
Obama’s main theme through this section of the speech is that there’s no“moral safe harbor” in war and whatever pitfalls drone warfare might hold are equalled by the hazards of conventional warfare. Which is what one would have to believe in order to conduct drone warfare.
Updated 15m ago
The next piece of Obama’s defense of drone warfare: conventional warfare would cause more civilian casualties, he says.
As I’ve said, even small Special Operations carry enormous risks. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and likely to cause more civilian casualties and local outrage. And invasions of these territories lead us to be viewed as occupying armies; unleash a torrent of unintended consequences; are difficult to contain; and ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict. So it is false to assert that putting boots on the ground is less likely to result in civilian deaths, or to create enemies in the Muslim world. The result would be more U.S. deaths, more Blackhawks down, more confrontations with local populations, and an inevitable mission creep in support of such raids that could easily escalate into new wars.
Obama turns to civilian casualties from drone strikes. He admits they have happened. He says he’s haunted by them:
Much of the criticism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The president says he signed new guidelines Wednesday governing drone strikes
That’s why, over the last four years, my Administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists – insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.
That document is, of course, secret.
Updated 1h 3m ago
Now the president makes more controversial claims about the drone assassinations, saying they’re legal because “we were attacked on 9/11.”
Furthermore, the drone program is part of a “just war,” Obama says:
We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.
Obama is back to the drone program. His first point is to say it’s effective. As evidence, he quotes none other than Osama bin Laden:
To begin with, our actions are effective. Don’t take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden’s compound, we found that he wrote, “we could lose the reserves to the enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.” Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.
In confronting terrorist threats abroad, the president says “our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm”:
The risks in that case were immense; the likelihood of capture, although our preference, was remote given the certainty of resistance; the fact that we did not find ourselves confronted with civilian casualties, or embroiled in an extended firefight, was a testament to the meticulous planning and professionalism of our Special Forces – but also depended on some luck. And even then, the cost to our relationship with Pakistan – and the backlash among the Pakistani public over encroachment on their territory – was so severe that we are just now beginning to rebuild this important partnership.
In a not-so-subtle dig at the George W. Bush strategy, Obama says a“boundless ‘global war on terror’” is out and “a series of persistent, targeted efforts” is in:
Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror’ – but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America. In many cases, this will involve partnerships with other countries. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers have lost their lives fighting extremists. In Yemen, we are supporting security forces that have reclaimed territory from AQAP. In Somalia, we helped a coalition of African nations push al Shabaab out of its strongholds. In Mali, we are providing military aid to a French-led intervention to push back al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and help the people of Mali reclaim their future.
Terrorism wasn’t invented with 9/11, Obama says. He lists the Beirut embassy and Marine barracks bombing; the Berlin disco bombing; the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie; the first World Trade Center bombing; the bombing at the Khobar towers; and the Kenya embassy bombing.
The president says that terrorism has changed. He says homegrown extremists are a major threat. “This is the future of terrorism,” he says.
Deranged or alienated individuals – often U.S. citizens or legal residents – can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad. That pull towards extremism appears to have led to the shooting at Fort Hood, and the bombing of the Boston Marathon.
Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism.
Obama comes out with a few lines about how “the core of al Qaeda”has shriveled:
Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They have not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11
Obama makes his first mention of drones, as one aspect of “hard questions – about the nature of today’s threats, and how we should confront them”:
From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation – and world – that we leave to our children.
So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. To define that strategy, we must make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom. And that begins with understanding the threat we face.
The president begins speaking. He’s describing the evolution of security challenges since the second world war. “For a moment, it seemed the 21st century would be a tranquil time,” he says – until the 9/11 attacks.
And so our nation went to war. We have now been at war for well over a decade. I won’t review the full history. What’s clear is that we quickly drove al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but then shifted our focus and began a new war in Iraq. This carried grave consequences for our fight against al Qaeda, our standing in the world, and – to this day – our interests in a vital region. [...]
After I took office, we stepped up the war against al Qaeda, but also sought to change its course. We relentlessly targeted al Qaeda’s leadership. We ended the war in Iraq, and brought nearly 150,000 troops home.
There’s a bit of a feeling that the president, by permitting fewer drone strikes and writing new rules for their use, is trying to close Pandora’s Box.
It’s not the first time the White House has signaled discomfort with the make-it-up-as-we-go nature of the drone killing program. Back in October the administration realized that Mitt Romney could win the presidency – and decided they better hurry up and make a blueprint for when it’s OK for the chief executive to assassinate people and when it’s not OK.
The New York Times’ Scott Shane broke the story last November:
Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials. [...]
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.
Guardian Washington bureau chief Dan Roberts reports on another significant announcement Obama is expected to make, relating to control of the drone program.
Although the first drone strike, in Yemen in November 2002, was carried out by the Pentagon, under Obama the drone program migrated to the White House, where John O Brennan, now the CIA director, helped the president pick the targets.
Obama is to announce today that the Pentagon will take over control of a greater portion of the drone program, a move billed as a way to formalize the process by which suspects overseas are selected for assassination.
In a major counter-terrorism speech billed as marking the end of an unfettered “war” on terror, Barack Obama was expected to reveal that he will move responsibility for future drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon so they can be more closely monitored by Congress.
A more limited range of strikes in countries such as Yemen are likely to be carried out by the US military working within a new set of legal guidelines agreed by Obama this week, giving greater clarification on how and when officials can target suspected terrorists operating abroad.
This blog reported on the scope of the unmanned aerial vehicle kill program in February, when Brennan was up for CIA confirmation:
There’s no government website that tracks the drone program. News organizations and think tanks that wish to do so rely on local and international news reports.
The Washington Post keeps an easy-to-read tracker, based on data provided by Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal and New America Foundation’s Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also keeps detailed data on drone strikes.
The strike counts differ. The Post counts 347 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, for example, while the BIJ counts 362. The Post tally of strikes in Yemen and Somalia since 2002, 55, falls within the BIJ range, 45-61.
The BIJ tallies civilian deaths and deaths of children from drone strikes. In Pakistan, between 475-891 civilians have died in US drone strikes since 2004, according to the bureau’s count. In Yemen the range is 72-178, and in Somalia it is 11-57. The web site The Long War counts 64 strikes in Yemen since 2002, with 82 civilian deaths.
Welcome to our live blog coverage of President Obama’s speech this afternoon on counter-terrorism policy and practice. It’s the first major speech on counter-terrorism of the president’s second term, and it’s being billed as the first time the president will go into detail about the drone assassination program.
A significant announcement is planned: Obama is to describe his intention to sharply curtail the unmanned aerial vehicle killing program, which he radically expanded upon taking office. Obama is expected to discuss his administration’s rationale for keeping the program mostly secret, and for keeping the legal basis for the program mostly secret, too.
Obama also is expected to talk about the crisis at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the government is force-feeding hunger striking prisoners. In a press conference last month the president returned to his deep-sworn vow to close the prison, blaming Congress for standing in the way.
As prelude to the president’s speech, attorney general Eric Holder sent a letter to senator Patrick Leahy, the judiciary committee chair, on Wednesday acknowledging that the United States had assassinated four American citizens as part of the drone program. Three of the four “were not specifically targeted,” said the letter. Holder repeatedly insisted on the administration’s “unprecedented” transparency on counter-terrorism. That’s a claim the president is likely to repeat this afternoon.
The president is to speak at 2pm at the National Defense University in downtown Washington DC.