Obama’s Weak Defense of His Record on Drone Killings

His choices made unjust strikes predictable and inevitable—and with Donald Trump poised to take power, the precedents he set are all the more alarming.

Barack Obama wearing a suit and sunglasses
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

When my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed President Obama for his recent article, “My President Was Black,” the discussion briefly turned to lethal drone strikes.

Obama had already spoken about the strengths and weaknesses of Black Lives Matter, LGBT activists, and activists objecting to the deportation of undocumented immigrants, remarks I suggest reading in full. “Sometimes it’s useful for activists just to be out there to keep you mindful and not get complacent,” the president concluded, “even if ultimately you think some of their criticism is misguided.”

That’s when he brought up critics of lethal drone strikes.

“The truth is that this technology really began to take off right at the beginning of my presidency,” he began. “And it wasn’t until about a year, year and a half in where I began to realize that the Pentagon and our national-security apparatus and the CIA were all getting too comfortable with the technology as a tool to fight terrorism, and not being mindful enough about how that technology is being used and the dangers of a form of warfare that is so detached from what is actually happening on the ground. And so we initiated this big process to try to get it in a box, and checks and balances, and much higher standards about when they’re used.”

Let’s pause there.

That narrative gets at least one thing right: The Obama administration’s approach to drone killings was much worse early on than after his concerted efforts to reform it.

But the narrative is misleading too.

Shortly before Obama took office, leaving his job as a United States senator, a CIA drone strike on a funeral in Pakistan killed as many as 41 civilians, an incident that apparently wasn’t enough to cause him to rethink the wisdom of the U.S. approach.

President Obama presided over a drone strike for the first time shortly after taking office, on January 22, 2009. The strike missed its target, and Newsweek reported that Obama was made aware almost immediately that innocents died in the attack. By the end of 2009 the CIA had already conducted its 100th drone strike in Pakistan.

The following year, a significant escalation in the drone war occurred not because “this technology really began to take off,” to repeat Obama’s construction, which seems to assign responsibility for targeted killings to drones themselves, but in part because of a deliberate response to a suicide attack on a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan that killed multiple CIA officers, prompting an unnamed official to tell The Guardian, “This attack will be avenged through successful, aggressive counterterrorism operations.” Many were cross-border drone strikes targeting the Taliban. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism later reported in its retrospective timeline, “2010 was to be the bloodiest year of drone strikes in Pakistan.”

Many innocents were killed.

It is impossible to know exactly when Obama recognized the need to get the drone program “in a box” and to introduce “checks and balances,” as he put it, or how he ever imagined the earlier status quo could end in anything but excessive killings.

In any case, Obama chose to allow the CIA, a secretive entity with a long history of unjust killings, to carry out strikes; he chose to keep the very fact of drone killings classified, deliberately invoking the state-secrets privilege in a way guaranteed to stymie oversight, public debate, and legal accountability; and he chose to permit killings outside the greater Afghanistan war zone, in countries with which the U.S. was not at war. Those choices made more unjust killings predictable and inevitable.

That should have been obvious to a former senator and constitutional-law expert who knew, among other things, that the CIA had recently run an illegal torture program. The CIA then got carried away with the power to kill in secret in multiple countries.

Obama couldn’t foresee that?

Many others could.

That more checks and balances were needed from day one was a no-brainer. Yet reporting by The New York Times suggests that Obama was directly complicit all along in efforts to obscure the true costs of drone strikes to innocents. As the newspaper put it on May 29, 2012, in a major investigative article:

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 …

The newspaper went on to speculate that “this counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year, Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the ‘single digits’—and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda.”

The absurdly low figures cited by Obama administration figures were lies. Along with Orwellian word games that his White House played, inaccurate death tolls helped to obscure a death toll that was a predictable consequence of Obama’s actions:

In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants. But some State Department officials have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers—but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

Later, a whistleblower provided The Intercept with a cache of documents detailing the U.S. military’s drone killings in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. One campaign, Operation Haymaker, took place in northeastern Afghanistan. “Between January 2012 and February 2013,” The Intercept reported, “U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” That’s one campaign of many in just one country where drone killings happen.

Reforms to drone policy in subsequent years much reduced the number of innocents killed.  Today, given significantly reduced casualties, Obama is on much firmer ground defending his drone policy, which he did in his interview with Coates.

“The truth is that, in trying to get at terrorists who are in countries that either are unwilling or unable to capture those terrorists or disable them themselves, there are a lot of situations where the use of a drone is going to result in much fewer civilian casualties and much less collateral damage than if I send in a battalion of marines,” he said. Of course, many targeted killings were carried out in circumstances where a battalion of marines would not have been sent in absent a drone strike.

Obama continued:

And I think right now we probably have the balance about right. Now, you wouldn’t know that if you talked to Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or some of the international activist organizations. Certainly you wouldn’t know that if you were talking to some of the writers who criticize our drone policy. But I’ve actually told my staff it’s probably good that they stay critical of this policy, even though I think right now we’re doing the best that we can in a dangerous world with terrorists who would gladly blow up a school bus full of American kids if they could. We probably have got it about right. But if suddenly all those organizations said, “Okay, the Obama administration’s got it right, and we don’t have a problem here,” the instinct towards starting to use it more, and then some of those checks and balances that we’ve built up starting to decay—that’s probably what would happen.

So there’s an example of where I think, even if the criticism is not always perfectly informed and in some cases I would deem unfair, just the noise, attention, fuss probably keeps powerful officials or agencies on their toes. And they should be on their toes when it comes to the use of deadly force.

International activist organizations would be justified in taking exception to that account. Obama’s defense of his targeted-killing policy as it exists today still proceeds as if the ratio of bad guys killed by drones to innocents killed is the only concern.

In his telling, get that right and “the balance” is “probably about right.”

But a focus on “balancing” legitimate kills and innocents killed sidesteps one of the most potent critiques of Obama’s approach: that many aspects of targeted killing policy are on dubious legal footing, and that Obama has set hugely dangerous precedents. Obama administration officials have variously argued that targeted killing with drones is a state secret or a so-called political question that isn’t properly justiciable.

In 2013, I noted that the Supreme Court in Israel, a state with national-security challenges greater than ours, grappled with whether judges have any role to play in targeted killings. They didn’t see it as a close question. They saw their role as determining “the permissible and the forbidden” in combat that implicates “the most basic right of a human being—the right to life.” They affirmed that “non-justiciability cannot prevent the examination of that question.” I suspect James Madison would find their approach more prudent than what the Obama administration suggests. The administration asked Americans to believe not only that it was empowered to kill an American in secret, but that after the fact, courts should refrain from judging whether such killings violated the right to life of the target.

Thanks to Obama’s actions, Donald Trump will be inaugurated into an office that presumes the authority to secretly order the extrajudicial killings of American citizens. Was the particular way that Obama targeted Anwar al-Awlaki worth that price?

Trump will also be inaugurated into an office that construes its mandate to kill with drones broadly, encompassing strikes in countries with which America is not at war and targeting groups and individuals that had nothing to do with the September 11, 2001, attacks. In effect, Obama has construed the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force so broadly that it’s now hard to discern any meaningful limit.

Obama himself is well aware of these critiques. At times, he has even seemed to agree with them. “The critique of drones has been important, because it has ensured that you don’t have this institutional comfort and inertia with what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of enemies,” he told Jonathan Chait earlier this year. “I will say that what prompted a lot of the internal reforms we put in place had less to do with what the left or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International or other organizations were saying and had more to do with me looking at sort of the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this. And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.”

The White House press secretary later clarified that Obama was speaking only about drone policy in his first term, before he introduced various reforms. But most of Obama’s improvements on drone policy can be undone with the stroke of Donald Trump’s pen. As Naureen Shah of Amnesty International told The Intercept, “What’s so interesting is that President Obama acknowledges this problem—that future presidents will be empowered to kill globally, and in secret. What he doesn’t acknowledge is how much of a role his administration had in making that a bizarre normal … What we’ll be left with from the Obama administration is a far more dangerous precedent of secret, global killings than what we started with.”

Relative to the actions of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and the reckless rhetoric of his successor, Donald Trump, Obama’s foreign-policy record is a model of prudence. He did not initiate a catastrophic war of choice that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives while making the world a more dangerous place. He has not started a trade war with China, or ordered U.S. troops to seize foreign oil fields or to perpetrate acts of torture or to kill family members of terrorists.

And elsewhere in his interview with Coates, Obama gives thoughtful, nuanced accounts of his domestic policy, and why he chose to make various, difficult trade-offs.

A more frank, less defensive grappling with drone policy would, I suspect, make me more sympathetic to Obama, though I doubt I would ever agree with the course that he chose. He might touch on the difficulty of stepping into a “war on terror” midstream, the institutional power of the CIA and other parts of the national-security state, the complicated calculus of dealing with allies in the Muslim world, threat assessments to which we’re not privy, and a dozen matters besides. Perhaps I’d have done no better or even much worse than Obama in his place.

I certainly do not envy it.

One day, I hope Obama explains his targeted killing policy more forthrightly, so that the public can benefit from his insights, mistakes, and contested actions. But presently—as in previous speeches on targeted killings during Obama’s tenure—the narrative he’s setting forth to Americans on drones is an evasive insult to their intelligence. And given Trump’s flaws, I fear his apologia comes at the worst possible moment.

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