Obama’s Headlong Rush to Counterterrorism Transparency

By my count, Thursday will be the 100th day since Obama promised, in his State of the Union Adress delivered February 12, “to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

Back then there were, officially at least, just a handful of Gitmo detainees on hunger strike. And it’s possible — if DOJ used the two 45-day gags on subpoenas they permit themselves — a subpoena seizing the phone records for 21 AP phone lines had already been issued.

After Obama promised more transparency on drones and other counterterrorism programs, Members of Congress continued to have to demand minimal transparency. On February 20, Rand Paul sent his third request for that information. On February 27, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte repeated that Committee’s request to see OLC’s drone targeting memos; he also expressed anger that the Administration had refused to send a witness to the hearing.

On March 7, Eric Holder hinted that we would “will hear from the President in a relatively short period of time” on drones and transparency and counterterrorism.  On March 8, guards at Gitmo shot non-lethal bullets at detainees. The following day US conducted a drone strike in Pakistan, one of two strikes that month.

On March 11, Progressive Members of Congress sent a letter asking for information on drone targeting.

On April 9, McClatchy reported that most drone strikes had hit low level militants, contrary to public claims; it also revealed the intelligence reports themselves were false.

On April 10, the House Judiciary Committee finally threatened to subpoena the OLC memos authorizing the killing of an American citizen; that was at least the 23rd request for such information from Congress. A week later the Committee would finally get a promise to see just those memos, memos squarely within the Committee’s oversight jurisdiction.

On April 13, the military locked down Gitmo, effectively depriving most detainees of the human company they had enjoyed for years. On that day, 43 men were hunger striking.

On April 14, Samir Haji al Hasan Moqbel described, in a NYT op-ed, “I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.” That same day, the US launched one of two drone strikes in Pakistan that month.

On April 15, the Tsarnaev brothers attacked the Boston Marathon, reportedly in retaliation for treatment of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

April 17, a US drone struck the Yemeni village of a Yemeni, Farea al-Muslimi, already scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about how drones turn Yemenis against the US.

On April 21, the number of hunger strikes at Gitmo reached 84 — over half the men there. Six days later, on April 27, that number reached 100. Three more men have since joined the hunger strike.

As those numbers were growing, on April 25, Dianne Feinstein called on Obama to transfer those detainees who have been cleared. On April 30, Obama renewed his promise to close Gitmo. The next day, the White House made clear that the moratorium preventing almost half the detainees, men who have been cleared for transfer, to return home to Yemen, remained in place.

On May 10, the AP learned that DOJ had seized phone records from 21 phone lines with no notice, potentially exposing the sources of up to 100 journalists.

On May 16, in a hearing querying whether Congress should eliminate or expand the September 18, 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan testified the war on terror would last at least 10-20 more years. He also said DOD won’t be taking over CIA’s side of the drone war anytime soon.

Saturday, a drone strike killed at least 4 thus far unidentified men in Yemen.

Which brings us to Thursday when, the WaPo details, Obama will give a speech telling us once again the drone strikes are legal, his desire to close Gitmo is real, and leaks his new CIA Director exacerbated are serious. He will, apparently, also tell us how he plans to make his counterterrorism plan look more like what he promised it would look like 4 years ago.

President Obama will deliver a speech Thursday at the National Defense University in which he will address how he intends to bring his counterterrorism policies, including the drone program and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in line with the legal framework he promised after taking office.

In the interim between when he promised this transparency and when he’ll start to sort of deliver it (but not, apparently, any actions to close Gitmo), about 7% of his second term will have passed.

Some of the delay, apparently, comes from the need to address the issues that have been festering during the delay.

Obama was prepared to deliver the speech earlier this month, but it was put off amid mounting concerns over a prisoner hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay and more recently the Justice Department leaks investigation — both of which the revised speech may address.

But otherwise, it appears it has taken 100 days to be able to craft a speech good enough to make his paranoia about secrecy and lip service to human rights in counterterrorism look like something else.

Ah well, at least they’ve sharply curtailed drone strikes while they’ve been writing a speech.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. harpie says:

    Devastating timeline, Marcy.

    About the AUMF hearing:

    Oversight: The Law of Armed Conflict, the Use of Military Force, and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force; Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing; 5/16/13

    Ms. Rosa Brooks; Professor of Law Georgetown University Law Center

    [1:42:48]Thank you chairman Levin and Senator Inhofe. It’s great to be here and I really appreciate your holding these hearings because these issues are incredibly important. I spent two and a half years working at the Defense Department as Counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense for policy, so I also want to say how much respect I have for the accomplishments and talents of the members of the first Panel. I also want to extend my sympathies to them because I think they were put into a position where I’ve frankly never see such an accomplished talented group of people give such muddled and incoherent answers to some fairly straight forward questions. I think they’ve created what my military colleagues call a target rich environment for those of us on Panel II. It’s a little tough to know where to start here. [1:43:36]

    Congress Must Figure Out What Our Government is Doing in the Name of the AUMF; Jack Goldsmith; Lawfare; 5/17/13

    “A common assumption in the debate about the appropriate legal regime for extra-AUMF threats is that the AUMF is cabined and cannot be extended to newly threatening Islamist terrorist threats. Yesterday’s SASC hearing exploded this assumption. The hearing made clear that the Obama administration’s long insistence that it is deeply legally restrained under the AUMF is misleading and at a minimum requires much more extensive scrutiny. It also made clear that the SASC’s oversight of the basic legal regime for DOD operations has not been (until yesterday) serious. […]

  2. ealofhuntingdon says:

    “Deep legal restraint” must be in the eye of the Holder. This administration feels about as restrained in its use of power and military force, and its willingness to tell its citizens one thing while doing another, as Dick Cheney.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Deep legal restraint” must be in the eye of the Holder. This administration feels about as restrained in its use of power and military force, and its willingness to tell its citizens one thing while doing another, as Dick Cheney.

  4. Peterr says:

    The choice of venue for that speech is interesting. And by that, I mean it’s probably about as safe a spot as he could pick.

  5. What Constitution? says:

    If somebody were to ask you, EW, what single and precise question would you most like to have Obama directly answer in this upcoming speech? One single and precise question, with no more than two subparts.

  6. emptywheel says:

    @What Constitution?: I’m going to do a post on just that.

    But the two first questions I’d ask are:

    If DOJ needed to seize 100 journalists’ phone contacts because the leak was so serious, why did you pick someone instrumental in the leak to run CIA?

    Do you agree that the war on terror will be 20 years?

  7. klynn says:

    Marcy,

    I would add to the timeline:

    April 8-11, 2013: ICRC President and the ICRC Head of Operations for the Americas met with the President to discuss with US officials files related to US detention and Guantanamo, Afghanistan and other ICRC operational contexts of interest to US officials such as Syria and Mali.

  8. lefty665 says:

    We also have the AGs contribution to “transparency”. I recused myself so I know nothing. Because I know nothing, the Prez knows nothing. My deputy did it. Transparent firewall engaged.

    Dunno where to put that in the timeline. It wasn’t a written recusal you know.

    Move right along unless you’d like to be whacked by the Espionage Act too. That is already transparent.

  9. klynn says:

    Here is a “post visit” discussion:

    ntercrossblog.icrc.org/blog/video-dispatch-icrc-president-icrc-us-relationship-guantanamo

  10. Peterr says:

    @emptywheel:

    Do you agree that the war on terror will be 20 years?

    20?

    Marcy, Thursday is the 395th anniversary of the beginning of The Thirty Years’ War. You might want to lead with that as you frame the question.

    From the wiki on The Thirty Years’ War:

    A major consequence of the Thirty Years’ War was the devastation of entire regions, denuded by the foraging armies (bellum se ipsum alet). Famine and disease significantly decreased the population of the German states, Bohemia, the Low Countries, and Italy; most of the combatant powers were bankrupted. While the regiments within each army were not strictly mercenary, in that they were not units for hire that changed sides from battle to battle, some individual soldiers that made up the regiments were mercenaries. The problem of discipline was made more difficult by the ad hoc nature of 17th-century military financing; armies were expected to be largely self-funding, by means of loot taken or tribute extorted from the settlements where they operated. This encouraged a form of lawlessness that imposed severe hardship on inhabitants of the occupied territory.

    The Thirty Years’ War was ended with the treaties of Osnabrück and Münster, part of the wider Peace of Westphalia. Some of the quarrels that provoked the war went unresolved for a much longer time.

    Bankrupt combatants?
    Widespread use of mercenaries?
    Problems of discipline?
    Financial improprieties?
    Lawlessness and hardship for the locals?
    Unresolved issues, even after the war ended?

    Maybe we should be calling this The Second Thirty Years’ War.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @emptywheel: The “war on terror” is so lucrative and politically empowering to the elites that it will last until the last taxpayer makes the last great sacrifice so that the top 2% need never sacrifice a bent dime.

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