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Counterterrorism: Where are Obama's policy changes?

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the continuing government shutdown during a news conference in the White House Brief
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about the continuing government shutdown during a news conference in the White House Brief

By Daphne Eviatar

It is now roughly five months since President Barack Obama announced a new direction for U.S. counterterrorism strategy.

"America is at a crossroads," Obama said at the National Defense University in May. "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us."

The president proceeded to set out his post-war vision for the nation — the peace dividend earned for the last 12 years of a complicated, costly and at times tragically misguided counterterrorism policy. The president, as usual, gave a good speech. Where he's weak is on the follow-through, however.

Though five months isn't that long, when it comes to a war that involves killing and indefinitely detaining a vaguely defined enemy, time is of the essence. It's also critical to restoring U.S. credibility around the globe, particularly around the constitutional principles the president repeatedly emphasized.

Obama has taken a few steps in the right direction since May. As promised, he appointed an envoy at the State Department to focus on transferring Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, and just this month appointed someone in charge at the Pentagon as well. He's sent home two of the 86 prisoners already cleared for transfer.

The president also promised to curtail his use of drones to kill suspected terrorists outside the Afghan war zone. He acknowledged the need to end what's been interpreted as an indefinite authorization for the use of military force.

But a couple of appointments, two transfers and many more promises don't amount to real change. To be credible, Obama needs to do more. And there's plenty he can do right now.

1. "GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law," the president said in May. Transferring the remaining 84 detainees already cleared by government officials is a step Obama can take quickly to demonstrate he's committed to restoring America's reputation as a nation committed to the rule of law. Even with the transfer restrictions set by Congress, the president has sufficient authority to ensure that at least this group of prisoners leaves Guantanamo soon.

2. "My administration," Obama said, "has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists — insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability."

Despite releasing a "fact sheet" on his "policy guidance" on the use of force, the president still has not answered the "profound questions" he himself raised about the use of our new and rapidly-spreading drone technology. He's also provided no way to know whether he's fulfilling his promise to use it responsibly.

Meanwhile, the drone program has continued over the past five months — with a stepped-up campaign in Yemen over the summer, followed by a barrage of strikes in Pakistan. Yet we know no more today than we did in May about how many U.S. drones have struck; whom or how many they've killed; the legal justification; the number of civilians killed in the process, and the overall effect of this killing campaign.

In fact, we don't even know if this administration believes we are at war in Yemen or in Pakistan. Or if it's operating under a legal theory of self-defense. The distinction is critical to which rules we're following.

In his speech, the president went beyond Afghanistan. "We act," Obama said, "against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat." He added, "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 only begs the question. Were the dozens reportedly killed by U.S. drones in Yemen really posing an "imminent threat to the American people" that couldn't have been addressed by the government of Yemen? How many civilians were killed? We still don't know.

For the president's pledge to be viable, he must do more than promise. He should release all the legal memos his administration has written to explain the underlying legal justification for his targeted killing policy. He should start by systematically providing information about the number and nature of targets and civilians killed in each attack.

As for civilians, CIA director John Brennan testified at his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States "need to acknowledge publicly" mistaken killings "in the interest of transparency." He later said that the administration should "make public the overall numbers of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes targeting al Qaeda."

As the president said in May, this "is critical because much of the criticism about drone strikes — both here at home and abroad — understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties."

Washington's claims that drones are precise and result in few civilian casualties needs to be supported with verifiable facts. That's crucial not only to Obama's credibility at home, but to reducing the risk of the drone program creating new enemies overseas.

3. "I believe we compromised our basic values," Obama said, "by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law."

Though the Justice Department declined to prosecute those who carried out acts of torture during the last administration, that's not the end of the story. For the president to restore the United States' credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, he must reckon with what happened in some manner.

The best and easiest way is for him to support a process by which the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence can release its study of the CIA's brutal interrogation tactics — a 6,000-page report the committee completed last year. By publicly acknowledging this dark chapter in U.S. history, Washington can begin to assure the world that we've learned from past mistakes and will not repeat them.

Only by acknowledging this ugly truth can we credibly demand that other countries do the same with their sordid pasts. It is simply not viable for Obama to tell the American people that we must "look forward, not backward" while telling Indonesians that they "cannot look forward without looking backward."

4. "We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the wellspring of extremism, a perpetual war — through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments — will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways."

In addition to pledging to address "the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism" — admittedly a big task — Obama promised "to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing."

The withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan provides an opportunity to regain peacetime footing, and end our reliance on the Authorization for Use of Military Force — the domestic legal authority for the so-called war on terror. This is a promise the president should commit to now.

"In the years to come," Obama proposed in May, "not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States." Unless we're committed to a better strategy, "we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight," he said.

The president will still be able to use military force to protect against imminent threats to the United States. But five months ago he acknowledged that this war against "al Qaeda, the Taliban and their associated forces" must end — and that he wanted to steer U.S. counterterrorism policy toward a more peaceful and stable course.

Now is the time to make clear to the American people — and the world — exactly how that will happen.

As Obama said: "That's what our democracy demands."

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