One of the hallmarks of President Obama's 2008 campaign was his condemnation of the tough counterterrorism measures adopted during the Bush years. Criticizing George W. Bush for presenting a "false choice between our safety and ideals," Obama promised to close down the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, end torture of suspected terrorists, and restore civil liberties that had allegedly been trampled on Bush's watch. Four years later, Obama has emerged as an aggressive counterterrorism president, particularly in his use of Predator drones to take out suspected terrorists in remote areas of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Obama even personally approves who will be targeted for killing, at a weekly meeting in which his aides present him with a "kill list" of possible targets, say Jo Becker and Scott Shane at The New York Times. Here, five takeaways from the Times report:
1. Obama has unprecedented authority over the kill list
Obama holds a counterterrorism meeting once a week and goes over a chart showing top al Qaeda suspects with accompanying mugshots and bios. Obama reserves the "final moral calculation" over who should be targeted, say Becker and Shane, believing he should ultimately bear the responsibility for America's actions. Obama's direct involvement in covert affairs, which is "without precedent in presidential history," also represents a remarkable embrace of counterterrorism tactics that bypass legal constraints and have been criticized as extrajudicial assassinations. Obama alone has the power to decide who will die, and there is "something arresting" about the "absolute certainty" with which he authorizes the strikes, says Adam Sorensen at TIME.
2. The administration relies heavily on drones
Drone strikes are "the only game in town" when it comes to counterterrorism, Dennis C. Blair, Obama's former director of national intelligence, tells The Times. The problem is that the U.S. could get sucked into a game of "Whack-A-Mole with terrorists instead of rooting out the cause," says Dashiell Bennett at The Atlantic. Furthermore, the U.S. has seemingly abandoned any attempt to capture terrorists and interrogate them, which could yield valuable information that "is the lifeblood of operational intelligence," says Bing West at The National Review.
3. Deciding Anwar al-Awlaki's fate was an 'easy one'
Obama told officials that the decision to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was an influential al Qaeda firebrand in Yemen, was "an easy one," say Becker and Shane. Awlaki played an operational role in an unsuccessful plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, but Obama still had to justify killing an American citizen (without trial) who was living in a country that was not at war with the U.S. The Justice Department drafted a memo justifying such a strike, and Awlaki was killed in September 2011.
4. Civilian casualty numbers are fudged
A major moral quandary stemming from reliance on Predator missile strikes is that innocent civilians are sometimes killed. The Obama administration sidestepped that issue by counting "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants," say Becker and Shane, assuming that people hanging out in terrorist hideouts are likely up to no good. That counting method reflects a disturbing pattern by Obama of reinterpreting rules and lifting constraints to go after desired targets, says Scarecrow at Firedoglake.
5. Obama has evaded the criticism that dogged Bush
Obama's record "has not drawn anything like the sweeping criticism" that Bush faced for his counterterrorism policies, say Becker and Shane. Indeed, Obama has "converted what were just recently divisive and controversial right-wing assaults on our values into fully entrenched bipartisan consensus," says Glenn Greenwald at Salon.