By Andy Worthington, December 8, 2016
On Tuesday, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the home of U.S. Special Operations Command and Central Command, President Obama made what is expected to be his final speech on counter-terrorism before he leaves office in just six weeks’ time.
As Jessica Schulberg noted for the Huffington Post, in his speech he "defended his legacy ― both from hawks who have accused him of withdrawing from the Middle East, and from liberals who have criticized his reliance on expansive surveillance and drones to fight wars," and "sought to convince the country that he had struck the correct balance."
However, as Spencer Ackerman noted for the Guardian, this was "a highly selective account of his record, particularly about the mass surveillance architecture he embraced and the drone strikes that will be synonymous with his name."
Ackerman proceeded to explain how Obama "dismissed concerns about the scale of global mass surveillance revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, saying he had made 'extensive reforms' and that the surveillance was 'just targeted at folks who may be trying to do us harm.'" In fact, as Ackerman pointed out, Obama only "reluctantly helped pass only one law curtailing bulk surveillance, a provision that left untouched the National Security Agency’s ability to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants and the FBI’s unrestrained ability to warrantlessly search through them."
On drone strikes, Obama attempted to silence his many critics by claiming that they have failed to "weigh the alternatives." He claimed that drone strikes "allow us to deny terrorists a safe haven without airstrikes, which are less precise, or invasions that are much more likely to kill innocent civilians as well as American service members."
In a further effort to defend his reliance on drone strikes, President Obama also pointed that, "under rules that I put in place and that I made public, before any strike is taken outside of a war zone, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured. And while nothing is certain in any strike, and we have acknowledged that there are tragic instances where innocents have been killed by our strikes, this is the highest standard that we can set."
As Spencer Ackerman noted, however, although Obama "insisted that he had placed appropriate safeguards around what he called 'targeted strikes' [he] did not discuss the number of drone strikes he permitted the CIA to launch without a requirement to even know the targeted person’s name – something the rules he has put around drone strikes still do not prohibit."
More generally, as the New York Times explained when the drone program was analyzed in its pages in June 2012, Obama "embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties," which "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent" — convenient for allowing the president to sleep easily at night, but irresponsible when it comes to asking how accurate the intelligence is in the first place, as further studies have made clear.
Obama also added that any successful counter-terrorism policy must "not create more terrorists," but Ackerman noted that, as a survivor of his very first drone strike told the Guardian in January, "If there is a list of tyrants in the world, to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program."
Discussing Obama's references to Donald Trump, the Huffington Post noted that, "[alt]hough he never mentioned president-elect by name, it was clear that Donald Trump was the intended recipient of some of his remarks."
Spencer Ackerman described Obama making "an impassioned plea not to embrace the mass suspicion of U.S. Muslims that Trump and his emerging national-security team have proposed." As the president put it, "We are fighting terrorists who claim to fight on behalf of Islam. But they do not speak for over a billion Muslims around the world, and they do not speak for American Muslims, including many who wear the uniform of the United States of America’s military. If we stigmatize good, patriotic Muslims, that just feeds the terrorists’ narrative. It fuels the same false grievances that they use to motivate people to kill. If we act like this is a war between the United States and Islam, we're not just going to lose more Americans to terrorist attacks, but we’ll also lose sight of the very principles we claim to defend. We're a country that was founded so that people could practice their faiths as they choose. The United States of America is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny, or carry a special ID card, or prove that they’re not an enemy from within."
Most of the above is worthy, of course, but those under the type of surveillance exposed by Edward Snowden might legitimately question quite how "free" the "land of the free" really is.
Ackerman also noted that, "in what sounded like a rebuke of Trump’s enthusiasm for walling off America and 'bombing the sh*t' out of Isis, Obama attacked the 'false promises that we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs or deploying more and more troops or fencing ourselves off from the rest of the world,'" and, in an evident plea for gun control, the president added that individual terrorist attacks would continue in the U.S. as long as the lack of any gun control allowed any would-be terrorist to "buy a very powerful weapon."
President Obama also repudiated the use of torture, which, in part, was a criticism of Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for it on the campaign trail — although it is to be hoped that the president-elect is now listening to advisers, like retired Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis, his choice for defence secretary, who opposes the use of torture. Trump said, after a meeting with Gen. Mattis, that he had asked, "What do you think of waterboarding?" and Mattis "said -- I was surprised -- he said, 'I've never found it to be useful.' He said, 'I've always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.'"
In his speech, Obama made his own position clear: "We prohibited torture, everywhere, at all times -- and that includes tactics like waterboarding. And at no time has anybody who has worked with me told me that doing so has cost us good intelligence."
He added, "When we do capture terrorists, despite all the political rhetoric about the need to strip terrorists of their rights, our interrogation teams have obtained valuable information from terrorists without resorting to torture, without operating outside the law. Our Article III courts have delivered justice faster than military trials. And our prisons have proven more than capable of holding the most dangerous terrorists."
It is not entirely true that President Obama outlawed torture. He certainly issued an executive order prohibiting its use, but torture techniques are still allowed at the discretion of military commanders in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual — and, of course, by failing to hold anyone in the Bush administration accountable for approving or engaging in torture, he has allowed high-profile individuals like the president-elect to think that it is acceptable.
President Obama also spoke about Guantánamo, explaining that "our success in dealing with terrorists through our justice system reinforces why it is past time to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo," and adding, "This is not just my opinion, it's the opinion of many military leaders."
He also stated, "During my administration, we have responsibly transferred over 175 detainees to foreign governments, with safeguards to reduce the risk of them returning to the battlefield. And we've cut the population in Gitmo from 242 to 59." However, as he also explained, "The politics of fear has led Congress to prevent any detainees from being transferred to prisons in the United States -- even though, as we speak, we imprison dangerous terrorists in our prisons, and we have even more dangerous criminals in all of our prisons across the country; even though our allies oftentimes will not turn over a terrorist if they think that terrorist could end up in Gitmo; even though groups like ISIL use Gitmo in their propaganda."
In conclusion, he said, "So we're wasting hundreds of millions of dollars to keep fewer than 60 people in a detention facility in Cuba. That’s not strength. Until Congress changes course, it will be judged harshly by history, and I will continue to do all that I can to remove this blot on our national honor."
Obama has always spoken eloquently about the chronic injustice of Guantánamo, and the counter-productive nature of the prison and its affront to the values on which the U.S. prides itself.
However, he also holds Congress solely responsible for Guantánamo remaining open, which is not strictly true. Although Congress has, since 2010, imposed serious restrictions on his efforts to close Guantánamo, raising barriers to the release of prisoners, and preventing any prisoner from being transferred to the U.S. for any reason, a waiver was long ago introduced into the annual legislation relating to Guantánamo (as part of the National Defense Authorization Act), allowing him to bypass Congress if he wanted to, but he has never used it.
And now, of course, he has almost run out of time. We will continue to call for him to close the prison before he leaves office — even if he is required to do so by executive order — via the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative that we launched in January, which is continuing with posters every five days until the end of his presidency.
However, failing to close the prison will not only tarnish his legacy; it also allows his successor to, if he wishes, expand it, something that Obama himself always resisted doing, because he recognized, as he put it in his speech, that federal courts "have delivered justice faster than military trials."
This is certainly true, but it also ignores how it was Obama himself who allowed military commissions to resume in his first year in office, which is part of the reason that the men facing trials — including the men allegedly responsible for the 9/11 attacks — are stuck in a broken system that seems incapable of ever delivering justice.
President Obama also blamed Congress for not having explicitly authorized a war against Islamic State (Isis). As he said, "Two years ago, I asked Congress, let’s update the authorization, provide us a new authorization for the war against ISIL, reflecting the changing nature of the threats, reflecting the lessons that we’ve learned from the last decade. So far, Congress has refused to take a vote."
Asa result, the U.S. operation in Syria and Iraq is being conducted under the Authorization for Use of Military Force that was passed just days after the 9/11 attacks against those responsible and "associated forces."
Yet, as Spencer Ackerman put it, "Obama did not mention that his own administration argued to Congress against passing a new authorisation to use military force in 2011, long before Isis came into existence, out of fear that Congress would pass a law that was too broadly drawn. Nor did he mention his heavy reliance on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force – including against Isis – and his administration’s decision not to seek the repeal he suggested in a 2013 speech."
In the end, it is also worth bearing in mind that the 2001 AUMF is the continuing justification for holding prisoners at Guantánamo, and should be repealed, as I argued five years ago.
In conclusion, then, President Obama’s speech, while providing some moral high ground from which to preach to his successor, more generally revealed, through omissions, the scale of his own counter-terrorism failures over the last eight years, not the least of which is the prison at Guantánamo Bay remaining open.
Not for nothing will his failure to close it — despite promising to do so on his second day in office in January 2009 — be regarded as a black mark on his legacy.