Wherein the New York Times Describes President Obama's Role as Drone War Kill List Decider-in-Chief


The New York Times has a pretty lengthy piece on the President's role in the waging of a drone war over Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, which serves to highlight some of the differences between the way President George W. Bush's prosecution of the war on terror was perceived and how President Obama's continuation and expansion of that war on terror is perceived today. George Bush, for example, got a lot of grief for characterizing his job as being that of "the decider." Here's the Times explaining how Barack Obama, too, is a decider:

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding "kill list," poring over terrorist suspects' biographies on what one official calls the macabre "baseball cards" of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

"He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go," said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. "His view is that he's responsible for the position of the United States in the world." He added, "He's determined to keep the tether pretty short."

The Times marvels at the president's decision-making abilities in the war on terror, drone edition:

When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was "an easy one."

The justification for ordering the assassination of an American citizen is buried towards the end of the article:

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

Internal deliberations! How reassuring. This aggressive approach in the drone war isn't all sunny, though, even according to the Times:

Mr. Obama's ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, has complained to colleagues that the C.I.A.'s strikes drive American policy there, saying "he didn't realize his main job was to kill people," a colleague said.

The Times explains President Obama's deft maneuvers immediately after his 2009 inauguration, and how the president worded his executive orders on Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition to seem like they comported with campaign pledges while leaving enough room for his policies to evolve back to George Bush form:

A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not. Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the Times papers over the very real "collateral damage" of U.S. drone strikes overseas:

Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. "The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, 'I want to know how this happened,' " a top White House adviser recounted.

In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a "near certainty" that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president's directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because "the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration," said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.

As a reminder, President Obama has already ordered 5 times the drone strikes George W. Bush did in eight years in office Only after official assurances of utmost protection of innocent life and "near certainty" of no civil deaths in any planned drone strikes does this get mentioned:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Guilty until proven innocent. The CIA even has the authority to target mere likely suspects. Salon's Glenn Greenwald noted even before that new authority the CIA was already targeting rescuers and mourners of previous targets. It's just "simple logic." The Times again:

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.  

The doctrine sounds remarkably like the one espoused by Mayor Bloomberg to justify the NYPD's stop-and-frisk tactics, where police officers enter largely minority neighborhoods to stop largely young black and Latino males and frisk them for guns (pretty much illegal in New York City). Though the left may deny the connection between foreign policy and domestic civil liberties it made to critique President Bush's war on terror, that connection undoubtably remains. As then Senator Barack Obama wrote in 2007, "the security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders. The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity." Despite that:

The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration's "false choice between our safety and our ideals." But he has found that war is a messy business, and his actions show that pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision.

The Times explains, too, how the kill list is fashioned:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government's sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects' biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

This secret "nominations" process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia's Shabab militia.

The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.

"What's a Qaeda facilitator?" asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. "If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?" Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.

The Times goes on to explain how Congress' reticence on closing Guantanamo Bay caught the president off-guard:

Walking out of the Archives [after a May 2009 speech on national security], the president turned to his national security adviser at the time, Gen. James L. Jones, and admitted that he had never devised a plan to persuade Congress to shut down the [Guantanamo] prison.

"We're never going to make that mistake again," Mr. Obama told the retired Marine general…

It was not only Mr. Obama's distaste for legislative backslapping and arm-twisting, but also part of a deeper pattern, said an administration official who has watched him closely: the president seemed to have "a sense that if he sketches a vision, it will happen — without his really having thought through the mechanism by which it will happen."

Apparently Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder were willing to go to Capitol Hill to defend the closing of the prison at Guantanamo, but Rahm Emanuel nixed it, placing healthcare reform first. Now the president just says he can't wait for Congress, and when it comes to the war on terror, or war in general, he just doesn't ask.

And, finally, your obligatory Vietnam comparison:

Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, said that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. "The steady refrain in the White House was, 'This is the only game in town' — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam," said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.

Reason on the drone wars