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article imageOp-Ed: Obama's drone policy speech creates more confusion less clarity

By Ken Hanly     Jun 3, 2013 in Politics
Washington - Far from revealing the transparency of Obama's government policies, his recent speech on security and drones contains something for everybody, is clear as mud on drone policies, and is interpreted by the press in quite divergent ways.
For hawks the Obama speech contained a vigorous defense of drone attacks but for critics of the program, he also put limits on their use, suggested that they might be less needed in Pakistan, and also would be employed by the US military rather than the CIA as happens now in Pakistan.
The speech did acknowledge by implication that the drone strikes in Pakistan had nothing to do with any threat to the US homeland but to threats to US service members in Afghanistan. Obama can therefore predict that drone attacks in the tribal areas will decrease as US troops are withdrawn: "By the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we've made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes." Of course, the core Al Qaeda he is talking about is probably the Pakistan Taliban (TTP). "Force protection" the Pentagon defines as "preventive measures taken to mitigate hostile actions against Department of Defense personnel (to include family members), resources, facilities, and critical information." So there was never any real threat from the militants in the tribal regions to American's in America just to US forces in Afghanistan.
The issue of the Defense Department rather than the CIA running the drone program in Pakistan is still not clear. Different commentators came away with divergent opinions after a meeting with Obama after his speech. Mark Mazzetti said of the new presidential policy guidelines that are classified of course: "The White House plan is for the Defense Department to assume control over all drone operations in less than two years". On the same issue Greg Miller came to the conclusion that Obama's new drone policy left room for a CIA role. A third analyst, Peter Baker, said that ending CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is not assured but will be reviewed bi-annually. This would be "to determine if it was ready to be moved to military control." I would conclude that the Obama administration will switch to Defense Department oversight of the strikes whenever they think that it is a good idea but are not promising anything.
The new guidelines require that the targets should be a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans" according to a US official. Two newspapers, the New York Times, and Financial Times both interpret the new guidelines as ruling out "signature strikes" that target people simply on the basis of behavior. Yet analyst Peter Baker writes : "For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes' targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas."
Obama's speech did not itself clarify these issues. Perhaps that is the whole point, that Obama's words are meant to muddy the waters not make them transparent. Obama's words are often meant to soothe the readers doubts and apprehensions about policies. For example, many worry that drone strikes kill civilians. Obama assures us: "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set." Yet we are told nothing of what constitutes this "near certainty" nor what processes guarantee this and how precisely they ensure this near certainty is reached before the attack happens. No doubt all this is classified.
John Kerry gives us no greater clarity but reveals another feature of the new policy that would seem to extend the range of targets: "The only people that we fire on are confirmed terrorist targets, at the highest levels, after a great deal of vetting." Note that earlier formulations of policy said that the targets were "senior Al-Qaeda officials" but now they are just terrorist targets at the highest levels. This could be senior officials in any terrorist group.
Comparing Obama's speech with previous speeches on the issue, Jonathan Landay came to the conclusion that "Obama's speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes." Yet, the Wall Street Journal analysing the speech claims: "The new language is more restrictive than the policy declared in an April 2012 speech by John Brennan, then White House counterterrorism chief."
As usual in his speech Obama praises his government's accountability to Congress. Obama boasts: "I've insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. After I took office, my administration began briefing all strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan to the appropriate committees of Congress." However the Bush administration often did so as well. This is hardly oversight since it is simply reporting the strikes after the fact.
The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committee members have many times requested but been denied briefings on how targeted killings are conducted. The judiciary committee has requested access to Office of Legal Counsel memoranda that provide the legal basis for targeted killing at least 21 times. The White House has consistently refused requests to have administrative officials to testify at hearings into targeted killings. In actuality the Obama administration is all about secrecy and lack of accountability. Oversight for Obama means targeting whistle-blowers who reveal information damaging to his regime.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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