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8 things I'd like to hear from Obama's counterterrorism speech

May 22, 2013, at 6:12 PM

President Obama's speech on his counterterrorism policies may be his last, best chance to establish a solid foundation for the extraordinary actions he's ordered as the commander-in-chief. Legitimacy and sustainability are his watchwords. But those who follow this subject closely will be watching to see how he addresses several difficult questions, including how the executive branch can possibly hold itself accountable when secret military operations go devastatingly wrong. Repeating his mantras from past speeches won't speak to the rising concerns among lawmakers and American citizens about his policies. Promising transparency without sacrificing any power or claim to power will be too easy. (The disclosure today that four Americans have been killed is a good first step, as is the Attorney General's acknowledgement that three of them were not targets; that is, they were unintended casualties.)

I do think Obama gets it. I also understand his equities, and I don't expect him to embrace radical transparency or completely reverse course. That said, here's what I'd like to hear.

1. An explanation, broadly, of what the offensive or kinetic counterterrorism policy is: Who carries it out, how it is carried out (using missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles capture operations, airstrikes, cooperation from foreign countries).

2. That the U.S. has gotten it wrong in the past, and that choices made by senior government officials have led to the death of innocents, including children. He should give an estimate of the number of civilians killed.

3. He should explain the mechanism for internal accountability: If things go wrong, what happens? Who gets blamed? How is the situation rectified? How can Congress hold the executive branch accountable for its own self-auditing? He might pledge to immediately release the names of everyone targeted or captured by strikes or operations post-facto (unless there's a really significant reason not to).

4. That foreign liaisons provide the U.S. with significant intelligence, and often, these relationships have to be protected, even if doing so sometimes seems silly. But in the future, protecting the sanctity of these arrangements will be weighed against the costs, particularly if they include violations against the dignity of Americans.

5. That counterterrorism policy must be rooted in indigenous self-governance and concrete economic development, as well as in symbolic gestures by the United States. That some risk is entailed in leaving states alone, but often, the best cure against radicalization is to leave them alone.

6. On Gitmo, he could go in several directions. He might drop his prohibition against releasing detainees to Yemen; he can ask the military to streamline its Draconian and often hilariously (if not for the tragedy of innocents being held) inept tribunal system; he can give Congress an ultimatum: Help him settle the detainees or he'll act alone.

7. He should explain the evolution of Al Qaeda as the United States sees it. Are we safe from an existential attack like 9/11?

8. And he should speak to this question: Does the US have the laws it needs now? Will Obama go back and revisit some of the more intrusive ones?

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