Obama Worries Future Presidents Will Wage Perpetual, Covert Drone War
Ryan Devereaux and Alex Emmons report in The Intercept:
President Obama warns in a new interview of a future in which a U.S. president could engage in perpetual covert wars “all over the world.” But he claims that the accountability and transparency measures he is instituting will make that less likely.
In the interview, with New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, Obama expressed agreement with one of the most salient critiques of his drone war, that it risks creating “institutional comfort and inertia with what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of enemies.”
Obama explained that he had looked at “the way in which the number of drone strikes was going up and the routineness with which, early in my presidency, you were seeing both DOD and CIA and our intelligence teams think about this.”
He continued: “And it troubled me, because I think you could see, over the horizon, a situation in which, without Congress showing much interest in restraining actions with authorizations that were written really broadly, you end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world, and a lot of them covert, without any accountability or democratic debate.”
[See update below, in which the White House press secretary says Obama was actually talking about how he felt before he instituted his reforms.]
The president expressed a sense of urgency to rein in these powers that seems particularly appropriate given that both candidates for the White House have indicated receptiveness to intensifying the use of military force abroad, with Donald Trump going so far as expressing openness to killing the families of suspected terrorists.
“By the time I leave here, the American people are going to have a better sense of what their president is doing,” Obama said. “Their president is going to have to be more accountable than he or she otherwise would have been. The world, I think, will have a better sense of what we’re trying to do and what we stand for. And I think all of that will serve the American people well in the future.”
But the one existing transparency measure Obama touts as an example in the interview — the administration’s release of its tally on civilian casualties from drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia — was viewed by many in the human rights community as a farce, largely because it pointed to a death toll far lower than outside observer tallies.
The release, made public on the Friday afternoon of Fourth of July weekend, reported that between 64 and 116 civilians were killed during Obama’s two terms. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, by comparison, has estimated that between 492 and 1,077 civilians have been killed by drone strikes during the eight years of Obama’s presidency.
And critical questions about those operations remain unanswered, such as the circumstances that led to the death of Momina Bibi, a 68-year-old Pakistani grandmother killed in an October 2012 airstrike; or the reason for the attack that took the life of Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber, an anti-al Qaeda imam in Yemen a month earlier; or the full story of how American forces came to target a wedding convoy, also in Yemen, a year later, killing 12 people.
Those questions remain unanswered, in part because . . .