In a highly anticipated speech today at the National Defense University, President Obama is expected to address the concept of the "perpetual war" on terrorism that has engaged the US military since 2001 when the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was first passed by Congress.
In addition, Obama will lay out new policy guidelines for the CIA's program of targeted killing, the US military's use of unmanned drones, and the president's new strategy surrounding efforts to close the offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
As the New York Times reports Thursday:
Mr. Obama is expected to reject the notion of a perpetual war with terrorists, envisioning a day when Al Qaeda has been so incapacitated that wartime authority will end. However, because he is also institutionalizing procedures for drone strikes, it does not appear that he thinks that day has come. A Pentagon official suggested last week that the current conflict could continue for 10 to 20 years.
Yet even as he moves the counterterrorism effort to a next stage, Mr. Obama plans to offer a robust defense of a continued role for targeted killings, a policy he has generally addressed only in passing or in interviews rather than in a comprehensive speech. A White House official said he “will discuss why the use of drone strikes is necessary, legal and just, while addressing the various issues raised by our use of targeted action.”
Acknowledging the limits of the AUMF will come as relief to critics who say the last decade of US foreign policy failures have rested on the back of the law that has allowed the US to treat the "whole world as a battlefield." That relief, however, will likely be short-lived given recent testimony by Pentagon officials at a Senate hearing which defended the president's military authority under the AUMF in ways that made Sen. Angus King (I-ME) exclaim: "This is the most astounding and astoundingly disturbing hearing I have been to since I have been here. You guys have essentially rewritten the Constitution here today."
On Wednesday and as part of a lead up to Thursday's speech and policy announcement, the Obama administration admitted publicly the killing of four US citizens by US drone strikes abroad. That admission came in the form of a letter sent to Congress by Attorney General Eric Holder.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office for the ACLU—which has sued the Obama administration in an attempt to obtain documents related to the drone killing programs—responded to the letter by saying it was "evidence that Congress has a crucial oversight role, and that the executive branch is accountable to Congress and the American people. We applaud Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy for his insistence that the veil of secrecy be lifted on the government's killing program."
But Hani Shamsi, director of ACLU's National Security Project, called Holder's letter only a "small step" towards full transparency and that the administration must do much more to "publicly explain its actions when it decides to kill an American citizen."
"The government must disclose its still-secret targeted killing memos so the public can determine if they contain criteria as vague and elastic as its definitions of ‘imminence’ and ‘feasibility of capture,’” Shamsi continued. “The letter also underscores how little the public still knows about this unlawful program and its consequences, including the previously unknown killing of a fourth American citizen more than a year ago. It does nothing to shed light on the government’s legal criteria and factual basis for the killings of thousands of non-citizens – including reportedly hundreds of civilians – in a program that is unlawful, dangerous, and unwise.”
Other human rights defenders also expressed concern that Obama will not go nearly far enough to reject the controversial policies that many clearly define as "war crimes" and "affronts to international law." Part of the goal of the speech, critics say, is to simply codify a system of extrajudicial execution with new euphemisms and illusions of transparency.
“The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world under the ‘global battlefield’ legal theory and a radical redefinition of the concept of imminence,” said Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International. “President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech [Thursday] and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed.”
“We are anxious to hear what President Obama has to say, and hope he will announce measures to close Guantanamo and stop the drones wars,” said CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin. “But if President Obama continues to rely on killing by remote control and locking people up indefinitely, we will be constantly creating new enemies and jeopardizing our national security. Respecting human rights, international law and the guarantees provided in our Constitution is the best way to keep our nation secure.”