Obama’s Finger Is On the Trigger Except Where It Matters

Update: In his speech, Obama took clear responsibility for killing Awlaki.

And as President, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki.

Daniel Klaidman remains the Administration’s go-to guy for stories that report facts that contradict the spin he gives them. Today’s installment explains that Obama insisted on retaining direct say over DOD drone strikes in part to ensure we don’t get embroiled in new wars.

Obama wanted to assume the moral responsibility for what were in effect premeditated government executions. But sources familiar with Obama’s thinking say he also wanted to personally exercise supervision over lethal strikes away from conventional battlefields to avoid getting embroiled in new wars.

But at the same time reports that Obama didn’t exercise direct control over those strikes — in Pakistan and, starting in 2011, in Yemen — that have threatened to embroil us in new wars (and indeed, in the case of our strikes on the Pakistani Taliban, led directly to terrorist attacks on the US as well as the Khost attack).

While Obama had broadly signed off on the CIA’s targeted killing program through a presidential finding for covert action, he did not authorize individual killings except in rare instances.

Effectively, by the time Obama overruled the military in the fight Klaidman portrays in this piece last year, all of the strikes away from battlefields were conducted by the CIA, the strikes Obama apparently took no moral responsibility for.

Klaidman’s report includes another laugher, one which undermines the central Administration claim that today’s speech will represent new drone guidelines.

Lethal force can only be used against targets who represent a “continuing, imminent threat,” and where “capture is not feasible,” Holder said in his letter. It is unclear whether that would signal an end to the controversial practice of “signature strikes,” where groups of suspected terrorists have been targeted even though their identities were not known. (The tactic is believed to have led to significant civilian casualties, while at the same time increasing the number of high level al Qaeda members who were killed.) One senior Obama administration official said the question of signature strikes, sometimes referred to morbidly as “crowd killing,” has yet to be resolved.

I guess my earlier suggestion that the word “ongoing” will be defined so broadly as to allow a great number of problematic drone strikes was correct: it apparently might even include signature strikes.

But ultimately, this is the funniest thing about this perfectly time advertisement that on drones Obama is (yes, Klaidman uses this term) “the decider.” Klaidman’s headline (one he likely didn’t choose) is,

Obama: I Make the Drone Decisions

His closing two sentences are,

Obama won’t be declaring the end of the war anytime soon. And that is why his finger will still be on the trigger.

Yet the day before this obviously sanctioned story, Obama’s Attorney General sent out a letter that shielded the President from all responsibility for the decision to kill an American citizen. Again, maybe Obama will change this trend today by taking responsibility for personally ordering the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki. But it seems as though, even as the Administration boasts of “unprecedented transparency,” they still want to legally protect one of the most important facts about drone killing.

21 replies
  1. edge says:

    “continuing, imminent threat”?

    I’m having a hard time parsing that phrase. Imminent means “About to happen”. How long can a threat continue to be imminent without somebody being accused of crying wolf?

  2. joanneleon says:

    Well. That was interesting. (the Droneanamo speech)

    I’m tempted to do a paragraph by paragraph response.

  3. Snoopdido says:

    @emptywheel: Good analysis! I think the following part of his speech deserves an observation as well:

    “Even after we take these steps, one issue will remain: how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law. But once we commit to a process of closing GTMO, I am confident that this legacy problem can be resolved, consistent with our commitment to the rule of law.

    I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country.”

    My take is that Obama’s confidence in solving this particular detainee issue is that it is no more than wishful thinking. Logic tells me that if he had a solution to the problem, he would have said so.

    I don’t necessarily fault Obama for not having a solution. I think the truth is that the permanent detention of these detainees without trial is a dilemma without an acceptable solution that is the policy legacy of the Bush/Cheney administration.

    In particular, I think that Dick Cheney and his crew knew then when they devised it, that there was no acceptable solution that any politician could take with regard to the permanent detention of these detainees without trial, and that was just fine with Cheney.

    I think Cheney is pleased that the current Obama administration and any future ones who have to deal with this, will have to surrender their ethics and ideals, and share the responsibility of this depravity, injustice, the total rejection of millennia of Western thought and jurisprudence, and the just plain evil that is the mind of Dick Cheney.

  4. john francis lee says:

    It has nothing to do with ‘law’ … ‘law’ is whatever they – and the nine dwarves – say it is. It has everything to do with ‘perception management’.

    But murder is murder, war crimes are war crimes … and aggression is a crime against peace :

    (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

    (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

    Obama’s aggressions – ‘continuing’ to unfold as we speak – like the Bush/Cheney aggressions before them were covered at Nuremberg …

    To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

    And that’s where we are today … enjoying the accumulated evil of the whole.

    Maybe – due to the corrupt fiscal policies of our nihilist corporate commander in chief – the dollar will collapse, the stock market will crash, and a new day will dawn. With no money for more war … abroad.

    We’d better have a plan to assert democratic control when that happens … it’s always been brute fascism in the past …

  5. orionATL says:

    the “i would have been derelict in my duty” defense for an unconstititional presidential action.

    what else is new from the bush-obama



    this is just more

    john yoo

    article two

    horse poo –

    from our harvard law school, univ of chicago constitutional law prof of a “leader”.

    in this speech one can see in the starkest possible relief the unimaginative,
    politically uncourageous, conventional-thinking, amoral mind of our current president.

    when it comes to leadership, this guy is a charming, handsome empty suit.

  6. Chris Harries says:

    “…how to deal with those GTMO detainees who we know have participated in dangerous plots or attacks, but who cannot be prosecuted – for example because the evidence against them has been compromised or is inadmissible in a court of law.”

    This must have been said a million times. But it is worth repeating:
    we cannot know whether or not anyone has done (or been involved in) anything if the “evidence” is inadmissable.

    To gild the lily: there are two basic problems. The first is that “we” clearly have not been witnesses of anything. We “know” only in the sense that knowledge is communicated to us, We “know” because we accept what we are told.
    The second is that the “knowledge” communicated is unreliable. In some cases because the source is dishonest. In others because he comes upon his “knowledge” by torture, deceit, bribery or intimidation.

    So the dilemma Obama poses is false: we do not know whether or not Gitmo detainees have done anything because no evidence of their doing anything exists. The chances that they have “participated in dangerous plots or attacks” vary only from being random by virtue of the proximity, theologically, geographically, ethnically etc that they have to the few (very few, pitifully few) who have been found guilty after fair trial to such “plots or attacks.”

    Essentially the problem here is that Obama dare not face down the lynch mob, which, like all lynch mobs, “knows” that its victims are guilty because even if they are not they deserve to die.
    Had lynch mobs enjoyed the luxury of sentencing their victims to indefinite terms of solitary confinement in the custody of racist thugs they might very well have saved themselves the trouble of killing them.
    Isn’t that what Jim Crow prisons are all about?

  7. Mary McCurnin says:

    If the evidence is not admissible in court or has been compromised then let them go. Isn’t this what happens in a real, actual, fa true court of law? It ain’t rocket surgery.

  8. thatvisionthing says:


    when it comes to leadership, this guy is a charming, handsome empty suit.

    I had a dream…

    was a ways back, I wrote about it in one of ubetchaiam’s diaries on fdl:


    Hey u, I had a dream last night, and I think it was related to your diary. Obama was going to give a speech in an auditorium in Congress with brown paneled walls. And I’m there and Michelle is there and we’re watching Obama on the in-room big screen monitor. But when Obama gets in place and starts to speak, he starts dissolving onscreen into the brown wall. They are so close to the same color that they are indistinguishable. He shimmers and disappears. And people start yelling for a blue backdrop so he’ll appear again.

    Now here I am with Michelle and Barack while workers are trying to get a blue backdrop. I’m feeling bad for him and want to be polite. I say, “You must have paid thousands of dollars for that suit.” He agrees. I don’t know the half of it.

    Now that I’m awake, I’m thinking the comical thing where a politician starts talking and disappearing into a voice poof — that’s from Doonesbury.

    You gotta love a blue backdrop.

  9. john francis lee says:

    Obama offers tortured defense of targeted killings

    Obama is well aware … that the assassination program is unconstitutional and illegal, and that, as president, he is guilty of multiple impeachable offenses. As if nervous that he would be held solely responsible for these actions, he repeatedly reminded his audience that Congressional leaders had been briefed about them on many occasions.

    Obama’s speech expresses the deep crisis of the American state as it carries out a violent and definitive break with bourgeois democracy. At least within sections of the ruling class, there is a fear that the state as a whole risks losing any legitimacy in the eyes of the population of the United States and of the world. This fear is entirely justified.

  10. LaughingJoe says:

    Political distraction.
    An art form meant to draw attention away from illegal surveillance undermining freedom of press, exploitation of executive power to harass the opposition, lack of restructuring or legal measures in Wall Street, structural unemployment, multiple asset bubbles created through manipulation, weakening global stance, inability to bring about peace, etc.
    No doubt, a great campaigner.

  11. greengiant says:

    The 24 hour cycle of the public relations spin has an 90 percent reduction in Pakistan drone strikes year to year as the big talking point. The Gray lady is writing about a demilitarized CIA. Nice job on the smoke and mirrors.

  12. thatvisionthing says:

    @john francis lee:


    Obama’s admission that he had ordered the killing of Awlaki is part of an effort by the administration to bring the assassination program “into the open,” to institutionalize it and turn it into a permanent feature of US policy.

    “I killed this man to make murder legal and a permanent touchstone of US law,” said the president. “Works for me.” Upon reflection he added, “I ordered this man killed so as to have as many screwed-up accomplices and legal corkscrews as possible. Now figure it out. Bet you can’t.” As the president left the free speech zone, he knocked garbage cans down behind him in his path.

  13. ess emm says:

    Moon of Alabama calls attention to Jonathan Landay’s story for McClatchy.

    In every previous speech, interview and congressional testimony, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed “senior operational leaders of al Qaida and associated forces” plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States.

    But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders. While saying that the United States is at war with al Qaida and its associated forces, he used a variety of descriptions of potential targets, from “those who want to kill us” and “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat” to “all potential terrorist targets.”

    The previous wording also was absent from a fact sheet distributed by the White House. Targeted killings outside of “areas of active hostilities,” it said, could be used against “a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.”

    The preconditions for targeted killings set out by Obama and the fact sheet appear to correspond to the findings of a McClatchy review published in April of U.S. intelligence reports that showed the CIA killed hundreds of lower-level suspected Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other” militants in scores of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal are during the height of the operations in 2010-11.


    The fact sheet also said that those who can be killed must pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to “U.S. persons,” setting no geographic limits. Previous administration statements have referred to imminent threats to the United States – the homeland or its interests.

    “They appear to be broadening the potential target set,” said Christopher Swift, an international legal expert who teaches national security studies at Georgetown University and closely follows the targeted killing issue.

    Trying to talk with the Administration is like talking to a 3-card monte operator. This is of a piece with EW’s observation about the use of adherents. Landay’s been very good on this subject.

  14. thatvisionthing says:


    “America’s actions are legal,” Obama insisted, referring to extra-judicial assassinations. “We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic and international law, the United States is at war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”

    But were we attacked by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and … ?

    “I did not say that,” said the president.

  15. thatvisionthing says:

    @ess emm: Landay and Marcy were on a HuffPost Live panel in April about Landay’s reports. Host was Alyona Minkovski, who asked great questions:


    “How do we know they’re bad people?”

    “What kind of precedent is this setting? If we’re writing the so-called rules here, then what’s to stop other people from doing the exact same thing?”

    “The United States is not supposed to be contract killing. That is not our business, at least I hope not.”

    “If Congress is getting their hands on this intelligence and on these kinds of reports and they are not accurate, then how are you supposed to accept any kind of accountability whatsoever?”

    “We’re talking about the manipulation of language, once again, right? That is leading to a much broader abuse of this policy, essentially lying by manipulating the language. How could we, how have we not learned anything from the last 10, 12 years?”

    “Just comprehend the magnitude of what is being said here.”

    Marcy’s post here: http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/04/11/huffpost-live-on-drone-strikes/

  16. thatvisionthing says:

    @thatvisionthing: In her post, Marcy asks the question, “Why is it that I’m the one who makes a career out of cataloging the things Congress gets lied to about?”

    Here is that part from the panel:

    Marcy Wheeler: No, on the oversight question, I mean I think there are three ways that it’s now clear, and has been clear, that Congress has been shut out of that. I mean, one is, Ron Wyden has been asking for a year and months now for a list of all the countries where the government is using targeted killings, which could be drone strikes, could be paramilitary. He’s been refused, outright. So an intelligence committee member has been refused a list of the countries we’re actually doing this.

    The memos covering the kinds of strikes that Jonathan reported on, both Pakistan and Yemen, have been refused to be handed over to Congress. And that’s public – again, Wyden and some others made a big deal of making that public – but they haven’t seen at least the legal rationale and the details attached to that.

    And then the third thing, and this is I think really important from Jonathan’s piece, is that he gives you numbers. He gives you the numbers that Congress has been told, and we know, I’ve been writing about a strike in Datta Khel, the strike that was actually of a Loya Jirga, of a bunch of men sitting down and trying to argue about land. And we know that 40-some people died. A goodly number of them were citizens. According to Mark Mazzetti’s recent reporting, people within the administration believe that dozens were killed who shouldn’t have been, and in spite of those dozens, again, that people within the administration were upset about, what came out in the reports that Jonathan read said none of those people were civilians. So we know that there were somewhere from 50 to 200 civilians that died in the period that Jonathan reviewed, and yet Congress is being told there was one. And we know from John Brennan’s confirmation hearing, for example, Dianne Feinstein was like, “Well, I’ve never heard of this military-age male standard,” which is what the administration is using, which is counting anybody who could be a militant as a militant and therefore you know really driving down the civilian counts that way. And so, you know, one of the things that I think Jonathan’s reporting does is really build on the many ways in which Congress has been refused to give insights into this program, or has been given the same kind of false information that happened in the interrogation program.

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