But over the last three and a half years Obama has in fact deepened the assault, strengthening the executive powers of his office and establishing new legal precedents to legitimatize major aspects of it—from indefinite detentions and military tribunals to presidential-ordered assassinations of U.S. citizens. Unlike his predecessor, Obama has intimately involved himself in directing hunter-killer operations carried out by aerial drone pilots and commando hit squads from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia—which have mushroomed under his watch.
Among Obama’s inaugural executive decrees was a pledge to close the Pentagon’s notorious military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Today it’s still open with 169 prisoners. The administration’s policy has been to send no new prisoners there, but instead to expand its prison at the U.S. airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan, where some 2,000 languish further from public attention and without a pretense of any rights.
The order’s fine print made clear the president was not challenging the indefinite detention of detainees without charges. Inmates “not approved for release or transfer,” the order said, “shall be evaluated to determine … whether it is feasible to prosecute” them.
Two months later the administration was filing its first court brief defending indefinite military detention for Guantánamo detainees under executive wartime powers. In May of that year Obama defended his prerogative to indefinitely hold those “who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger.” His administration has designated 46 prisoners for detention without trial.
Another executive order signed on Obama’s second day announced the closure of secret CIA “detention facilities,” commonly referred to as “black sites.” The order included a clause stating that “detention facilities … do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short term, transitory basis.”
The undefined “short term” and “transitory basis” allowed the CIA to continue its practice of “extraordinary renditions” to other countries for “enhanced interrogation,” with a new air of legitimacy. In September 2010, a U.S. appeals court ruled in favor of the Obama administration, dismissing a suit by five victims of torture under the CIA’s renditions program based on the government’s “state secrets” privilege.
In his first week in office President Obama suspended military commissions at Guantánamo. In March 2011 Obama issued an executive order resuming them with some minor tweaks. Some three dozen have been designated by the current administration to face military “justice” in which the Pentagon assigns military officers to serve as judge and jury and the use of secret evidence and hearsay is permitted.
Another presidential order in March 2011 further validated indefinite detention by establishing a periodic government review of Guantánamo prisoners slated for military prosecution or considered neither fit for trial nor release.
Since assuming office the Obama administration has conducted nearly 300 drone strikes—255 of which have taken place in Pakistan, according to the Long War Journal website. This is roughly six times more than were carried out during the entire Bush administration.
The current president has taken a peculiar interest in the remote assassination campaign. “Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical,” said a May 29 article in the New York Times titled “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.”
The president approves every name on the kill list and every strike in Yemen and Somalia, as well as many of the “more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan,” the Times said. “Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die,” reported the paper. The president’s strikes have included some that were certain to result in what the administration counts as civilian casualties. The official civilian body count is kept low by recording all men in a strike zone as combatants, unnamed officials told the Times.
Obama’s first strike in Yemen in December 2009 killed more than 40 civilians, including women and children, and left behind a number of deadly cluster bombs to kill more. More recently a May 6 airstrike reportedly killed Fahd al-Quso, an alleged al-Qaeda leader, and 19-year-old Nasser Salim, who was tending to his farm when al-Quso drove into the area.
The latest U.S. drone assault June 4 in Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan killed 15 “suspected militants,” according to the Long War Journal. It was the eighth strike in Pakistan in 12 days. Since April, Washington has conducted 14 airstrikes in Yemen.
The Obama administration has established a protocol in Pakistan and Yemen that targets unidentified people based on “patterns of behavior” and “gathering places,” according to numerous press reports.
Last September a U.S. drone strike killed U.S.-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen after Obama publicly announced he put him on the hit list. That decision was “an easy one” Obama told associates, according to the Times.
Following the killing, the administration declared the president’s authority to assassinate citizens who pose an “imminent threat” if “capture is not feasible,” as Attorney General Eric Holder put it in a speech March 5 at Northwestern University School of Law. Referring to the Fifth Constitutional Amendment’s prohibition on taking life without due process, Holder said “‘due process’ and ‘judicial process’ are not one and the same.” In other words, as long as the administration has really mulled it over and Congress is not complaining, don’t worry, it’s all good.
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