President Barack Obama this week is attempting to defend his questionable counter-terrorism strategy before handing over the vast and much-expanded presidential war powers to Donald Trump.
The outgoing president on Tuesday gave his final foreign policy speech at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, home to Central Command and Special Operations Command, during which he touted some of the strategies he used in fighting the so-called "War on Terror."
"It's past time for Congress to repeal this blank check for endless war and live up to our obligation to debate matters of war and peace."
—Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)"The central idea," USA Today reported ahead of the speech, is "[t]hat the United States should stay true to its values even while fighting a ruthless enemy."
Deputy National Security advisor Ben Rhodes said the speech "wasn't intended as a direct appeal to Trump," the newspaper notes. But, given that his successor has openly discussed bringing back torture and frequently eschews the rule of law, Obama's speech had added resonance.
With an eye to that presidential transition, the White House on Monday published a lengthy report (pdf) outlining the "legal and policy frameworks" for deployment of the "use of military force and related national security operations," along with an accompanying presidential memo.
In the memo, Obama emphasizes "the importance of transparency" in regards to "use of military force," and directs future national security agencies to annually "review and update" the report, making it publicly available in the Federal Register.
Rights groups applauded the effort as "long overdue and welcome," and "an important step toward greater transparency," but some warned that many of the policies presented by the outgoing president are nonetheless troubling—and not necessarily forthright.
As Intercept reporter Alex Emmons put it, "in trying to defend Obama's legacy, the report paints a picture of an administration far more restrained than it was in practice."
Obama dramatically escalated the use of drones to kill alleged terrorists far away from recognized warzones. [...]
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But more quietly, Obama has continued to expand the power of the president to wage covert war. The Washington Postreported last month that Obama was elevating Joint Special Operations Command—the government’s high-level team for global killing missions—into a "new multiagency intelligence and action force," with expanded power to launch attacks on terrorist groups around the world.
The vast report covers the legal frameworks for military force and support overseas, as well as "the application of legal and policy frameworks to U.S. operations in key theaters," including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.
It also describes "key legal and policy frameworks related to the conduct of hostilities," including: "targeting; the capture of individuals in armed conflict; the detention of individuals in armed conflict; the prosecution of individuals through the criminal justice system and military commissions; and the transfer of armed conflict detainees."
"While certain U.S. positions raise serious international law concerns, this comprehensive description of U.S. policy and practice lays out minimum standards that the next administration should meet and improve upon," said Laura Pitter, U.S. national security counsel at Human Rights Watch, which published a thorough reading of the White House report on Tuesday.
"It clearly reads like an explanation, a textbook that's left for the next person," Naureen Shah, director of the Security With Human Rights Program at Amnesty International, told Emmons. "Here are all the things you cannot do."
Among the revelations in the report, it shows how the administration has leaned on the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) repeatedly to expand operations against the Islamic State. As USA Today pointed out, "the report revealed for the first time Monday that the same justification has been used to attack the Somali militant group al Shabaab."
In a press statement on Tuesday, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) reiterated her call for Congress to repeal the AUMF. "This report details the vast scope of U.S. military operations, in our nation and abroad, as well as the administration's reliance on the outdated 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force," Lee said. "It's past time for Congress to repeal this blank check for endless war and live up to our obligation to debate matters of war and peace."
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said the report "is long overdue and welcome, as is any national security transparency by this administration."
Shamsi acknowledged that "aspects of the report are strong, including the clear acknowledgement that torture and cruel treatment are always illegal under domestic and international law.
"But," she added, "we are sorely disappointed that even as it imposes policy limitations, the administration continues to claim broad authority to kill abroad, invoking the laws of war where they do not apply and doing so without any congressional authorization. In the next administration, we will continue our work to rein in overbroad and unlawful claims of executive authority to kill."