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."