On Thursday, President Obama gave an exhaustive and wide-ranging speech that attempted to re-frame U.S. counterterrorism objectives, defend his administration's policy choices, and provide guidance for the remainder of his second term. This speech had been promised in Obama's State of the Union address, and it was effectively the culmination of a 16-month effort to selectively engage with -- and shape -- public debate so as to put drone strikes on a more defensible footing.
Obama should be credited for recognizing that targeted killings are controversial among Americans and that discussing their ethical and policy tradeoffs is his responsibility as president. In the speech, he also finally acknowledged what no U.S. government official had ever admitted: that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan predominantly targeted individuals who threatened U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan, not the U.S. homeland. As Obama noted: "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."
The term "force protection" is defined by the Pentagon as "preventive measures taken to mitigate hostile actions against Department of Defense personnel (to include family members), resources, facilities, and critical information." The force protection objective of Pakistan drone strikes partially explains why their numbers expanded and contracted with the surge and withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Why the Bush and Obama administrations refused to acknowledge, until Thursday, what was plainly evident to anybody who followed this issue, will likely remain an unsolved riddle of the war on terror.
The most anticipated component of the speech was what language Obama would use to describe the individuals that the United States contends it can legitimately target outside of traditional battlefields. As this column has noted repeatedly, trying to intuit U.S. targeted killing policies from the adjectives and phrases used by senior officials has been a wasted effort, since the gap between justification and actual practice has been so wide.
There were a series of pre- and post-speech leaks to influential national security reporters which suggested that Obama would limit drone targets. Two hours before the speech there was also an embargoed conference call with three anonymous administration officials (you can probably guess who they were), which provided some clarity. President Obama also reportedly met with foreign policy columnists after his speech, including Thomas Friedman, David Ignatius, Fred Hiatt, and Gerald Seib.
These sources told us three things:
First, the new classified presidential policy guidance contains a "preference that the United States military have the lead for the use of force...beyond Afghanistan where we are fighting against al-Qaida and its associated forces," according to one official. "The White House plan is for the Defense Department to assume control over all drone operations in less than two years," wrote Mark Mazzetti. In contrast, Greg Miller determined that "Obama's New Drone Policy Leaves Room for CIA Role." On Tuesday, White House correspondent Peter Baker contended that ending CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is not assured, but will be reviewed bi-annually "to determine if it was ready to be moved to military control."
Second, in responding to a question about military versus CIA operations, another anonymous official said that "the targeting parameters for all lethal actions are uniform," which I interpreted to mean that they apply no matter who is the lead executive authority. In January 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the same legal principles regarding "direct actions" apply to "all components of the government involved in counterterrorism, be it military or nonmilitary."
Third, the new guidelines indicate that targets must present a "continuing, imminent threat to Americans," according to a U.S. official. The New York Times and the Financial Times both wrote that this indicated an end to the controversial practice of "signature strikes" against anonymous military age males whose guilt is determined, in part, by the patterns of their observable behavior. But, on Tuesday, Baker wrote: "For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes' targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas." Meanwhile, Declan Walsh revealed that this year "the United States cut back on so-called signature strikes against clusters of militant suspects." So, who knows?