Confront and Confuse

Did Obama's speech actually say anything new about drones?

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?

The problem is that, in his speech, President Obama did not directly address any of those issues, nor are they discussed in the declassified summary of the presidential policy guidance. He also did not speak to the longstanding concern of what procedures are in place to mitigate harm to civilians, stating instead: "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set." This is merely an assertion, and it raises further questions about how the Obama administration defines "near-certainty" and what lower standard they were following previously.

(Secretary of State John Kerry further confused things days later when he proclaimed: "The only people that we fire on are confirmed terrorist targets, at the highest levels, after a great deal of vetting." One difference between the previous guidance and the new guidance is that there is no longer a mention of "senior al Qaeda officials," which makes the "highest levels" comment puzzling.)

This was supposed to be the speech in which President Obama clarified his targeted killing policies. Instead, he further confused both domestic and international audiences. By comparing it with previous administration officials' comments, Jonathan Landay determined that "Obama's speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes." Wall Street Journal reporters came to the opposite conclusion: "The new language is more restrictive than the policy declared in an April 2012 speech by John Brennan, then White House counterterrorism chief."

To quote the rant by former New York Jets football coach Herman Edwards about anonymous comments by his staff: "Just put your name on it. That's all I say. Be a man, or a woman, put your name on it."

This is President Obama's policy. He has authorized over seven times more drone strikes than his predecessor, he is the commander in chief, and he can declassify whatever information he wants. He missed this opportunity to put his name on his drone policies, relying on his senior aides to do it for him -- a common presidential practice. To assure his administration remains the "most transparent in history," he should direct Brennan's replacement, Lisa Monaco, to prepare a follow-up speech that explains to the public, not just to selected reporters, what U.S. targeted killing policy really is.

Later in the speech, Obama also touted the extent of his administration's engagement with Congress, declaring, "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." This language suggests that the Bush administration never reported non-battlefield targeted killings to the Senate and House intelligence committees, which is not true.

Moreover, congressional oversight extends beyond four committees receiving after-the-fact notifications of targeted killings. The Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committee members and staffers have repeatedly requested, and been denied, general briefings about how targeted killings are conducted within the countries in which they oversee U.S. policy. The judiciary committees and others have requested at least 21 times access to all the Office of Legal Counsel memoranda that provide the legal basis for targeted killings. And the White House has flatly refused repeated requests for administration officials to testify at recent hearings regarding targeted killings. This is strange behavior for a president that has "insisted on strong oversight."

Obama also endorsed "efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal" the Authorization for Use of Military Force, adding, "I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further." This must have been news to the national security bureaucracy, since just two weeks prior four senior civilian and military officials repeatedly told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the AUMF should be maintained. As Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, stated: "I think the AUMF as currently structured works very well for us.... Senator Inhofe said if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I would subscribe to that policy."

Toward the end of his speech, while being interrupted with questions by activist Medea Benjamin, Obama stated: "These are tough issues, and the suggestion that we can gloss over them is wrong." But on Thursday the president did gloss over a lot of them -- and the White House's leaks didn't help. What matters now is whether the Obama administration will actually tell Congress and the American public how it is conducting targeted killings. As the president declared in his State of the Union address, "[I]n our democracy, no one should just take my word that we're doing things the right way."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Our Military, Ourselves

Why Americans are to blame for the Pentagon's outrageous sex scandals.

Ongoing rampant sexual assault within America's armed forces is a tragedy. The 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members (WGRA) found that an estimated 26,000 active-duty servicemembers were sexually assaulted last year, and recent allegations of sexual assault by officers assigned to prevent that very crime have lent the situation a sinister irony. The U.S. military is clearly facing, in the words of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, "a crisis."

Last week, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, declared that confronting the problem was his "No. 1 priority." Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno went further, saying: "The Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment." He said that fighting the crime is now "our primary mission." Repeating the claims of his two predecessors, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to solve the chronic problem of sexual assault and stated that "every option is on the table."

The estimated incidents of "unwanted sexual contact" within the military have increased since the previous survey in 2010 despite internal reforms. When reviewing the Pentagon and service websites dedicated to preventing sexual assault, it is difficult to comprehend the vast number of new directives, memoranda, instructions, policies, and awareness-raising campaigns that have been introduced over the past three years -- none of which seems to be having an effect. Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, referred to these efforts as "half-hearted, half-measured reform Band-Aids."

Unfortunately, however admirable the recent condemnations of sexual assault in the military, they're unlikely to have much impact, because sexual assault in the military is not a military problem. It is an American problem. Scholars, retired officers, and others have longed warned of the creeping militarization of American society. However, as the Pentagon yet again renews its sexual assault prevention efforts, it must not discount the socialization of the American military.

The data suggest that one servicemember is sexually assaulted every 20 minutes and that one American citizen is sexually assaulted every two minutes, but it is difficult to directly compare military and civilian sexual assault rates. The WGRA defines "unwanted sexual contact" as "completed or attempted sexual intercourse, sodomy (oral or anal sex), penetration by an object, and the unwanted touching of genitalia and other sexually-related areas of the body." Survey participants were asked to report incidents occurring in the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice survey used to calculate sexual assaults nationwide asks participants if anyone has "attacked" or "threatened" them by "grabbing, punching, or choking" or by "any rape, attempted rape or other type of sexual act" over the course of the past six months. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent survey on the nationwide prevalence of sexual violence, 5.3 percent of English- and/or Spanish-speaking American women age 18 and older, who were not institutionalized or in the armed forces, were victims of unwanted sexual contact, including rape and other acts of sexual violence, in 2010. An estimated 4.9 percent of men experienced forms of sexual violence other than rape. (Unfortunately, the sample population of males reported too few incidents of rape for an estimate to be determined, which may allude to a low reporting rate rather than a low incident rate.)

Although sexual violence has decreased nationwide over the past two decades, that downward trend cannot be taken for granted because we do not know why it happened. And, regardless, the number of incidents remains shockingly high. Within the military, 6.1 percent of female servicemembers and 1.2 percent of male servicemembers reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012. The prevalence of sexual assault within the ranks is a snapshot of the crisis facing the United States, where "13% of women and 6% of men are sexually coerced in their lifetimes," according to the CDC.

Military officials' attempts to blame the crisis on American society have understandably been clumsy. During a May 7 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gen. Welsh attributed the rates of sexual assault in the military, in part, to the "hookup mentality of junior high." He later apologized for the remark, noting that he wished he had taken more time to explain himself. He added: "We have to get at instilling from the day people walk in the door in our Air Force this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity, and value of every individual."

But Welsh had a good point: No one who enters the military does so with a blank slate. All servicemembers have at least 17 years of cultural experience prior to signing up. One need only flip through a few channels on cable television or spend a few moments surfing the Internet to understand, as Tom Vanden Brook and Gregg Zoroya noted in a recent article, that male servicemembers (who make up 85 percent of the military) are drawn from a society in which "violence and objectification of women are staple elements."

American women are born into a society in which the "importance" of beauty and sexuality is emphasized in their personal and professional lives. Despite great achievements in gender equality, sexism persists in the United States and frequently goes unnoticed because it is so deeply engrained in our culture. "It seems to be increasingly difficult to talk about sexism, equality and women's rights in a modern society that perceives itself to have achieved gender equality," writes Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which uses social media to measure sexism faced by women. In truth, the United States remains far from gender equality: last year, it was ranked 42nd on the Gender Inequality Index, which quantifies and analyzes reproductive health, political and educational empowerment, and participation in the labor force.

Despite progress in many areas, American culture remains bluntly sexist -- and has become increasingly sexualized. The Disney princess movies, which are still a childhood staple of most American girls, convey that beauty and sexuality are key to "happily ever after." The music industry is no different. A 2012 study by Cynthia Frisby and Jennifer Aubrey found that female artists are increasingly using sexual imagery to brand their products and that "young audiences may interpret these sexually objectifying images as important ways to be seen as attractive and valuable to society." Natasha Walter, author of Living Dolls, wrote that, as a result, women are confusing sexual objectification with empowerment. Of course, men also face daunting social expectations to be powerful, strong, and "manly."

Sexism is also evident in more glaring forms. Just this past weekend, radio host Pete Santilli casually remarked that Hillary Clinton should be "shot in the vagina" -- vulgar, gender-based language that belittled and threatened the former secretary of state. In a similar instance just over a year ago, Rush Limbaugh proudly referred to Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, as a "slut" and a "prostitute" because she believed that health insurance companies should cover the cost of contraceptives.

Current and retired military officers should openly and repeatedly condemn sexism and the attendant pervasiveness of sexual assaults within society, just as they often warn about societal trends that negatively impact the ability to recruit, train, and equip the force. That's what they did with high school graduation rates and obesity -- see the 2012 "Too Fat to Fight" study. If a lack of education or fitness can be categorized as threats to our national security, then surely sexual violence should qualify as well.

Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated: "It is, in my opinion, and I believe the secretary's position, not good enough to compare us to the rest of society. This is the United States military and the Department of Defense. It really doesn't matter if our rates are similar to the rest of society, quite frankly. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard and that's what the American people demand." That may be so, but how can the issue be effectively addressed without improving standards throughout society?

If you spend any time at a post or base -- much less a reserve depot or National Guard armory -- you realize that the military is neither isolated nor insulated from American society, nor should it be. Addressing this sexual assault crisis as solely a military problem would merely place another Band-Aid on a national wound; success will elude even the most comprehensive military reforms. If policymakers and military officials wish to stand by their commitments to eradicate the culture of sexual violence in the military, they must confront its root cause.

On Friday, Hagel proclaimed: "We all have committed to turn this around, and we're going to fix the problem....The problem will be solved here in this institution." No, Mr. Secretary, it won't.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for USO Metropolitan New York