Obama Faces the Limits of His Drone Program

Death of two hostages highlights the dilemma the White House faces with counterterrorism operations.

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
April 23, 2015, 9:24 a.m.

No­bel Peace Prize-win­ner Barack Obama is once again con­front­ing the con­sequences of a coun­terter­ror­ism drone policy that he in­her­ited but has greatly ex­pan­ded upon tak­ing of­fice.

The deaths of an Amer­ic­an and an Itali­an be­ing held host­age by al-Qaida in a U.S. strike on an al-Qaida com­pound in the re­gion along the bor­der of Pakistan and Afgh­anistan get to the heart of the di­lemma that the drone war has cre­ated for Obama.

Obama ran for of­fice prom­ising to end two long ground wars Amer­ic­ans had grown weary of. He has largely been able to ac­com­plish that, thanks at least in part to an in­creased use of un­manned but leth­al air­craft—more lim­ited war by re­mote con­trol, which has brought its own costs.

The strike was con­duc­ted as part of the in­tel­li­gence com­munity’s on­go­ing pro­gram to kill ter­ror­ist lead­ers in the re­mote areas where many of them have set up bases. In a hast­ily ar­ranged speech, Obama said he took “full re­spons­ib­il­ity” for the op­er­a­tion and that he couldn’t ad­equately ad­dress the grief the fam­il­ies of War­ren Wein­stein and Gio­vanni Lo Porto must be feel­ing.

At the same time, Obama ar­gued, again, his coun­terter­ror­ism policy has saved in­no­cent lives both here and abroad, and the strike that ac­ci­dent­ally killed Wein­stein and Lo Porto did, in fact, ac­com­plish its in­ten­ded ob­ject­ive. “We do be­lieve that the op­er­a­tion did take out dan­ger­ous mem­bers of al-Qaida,” he said.

Obama prom­ised a full re­view of the strike to see what went wrong and what could be im­proved to make sure it doesn’t hap­pen again. It’s un­clear whom such a re­view will sat­is­fy, re­gard­less of its res­ult.

Some of Obama’s most fer­vent fans were in Europe pri­or to and fol­low­ing his elec­tion. He won the peace prize just nine months in­to his pres­id­ency, largely on the hope that he offered for peace. Now, Europe is home to some of Obama’s harshest crit­ics, when it comes to both coun­terter­ror­ism and elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance.

Civil liber­tari­ans have cri­ti­cized him for con­tinu­ing a policy of killing sus­pec­ted ter­ror­ists, rather than ar­rest­ing and try­ing them. These crit­ics come from his own party as well as the liber­tari­an wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Sen. Rand Paul raised his pro­file two years ago with an overnight fili­buster fol­low­ing a drone strike that tar­geted an Amer­ic­an cit­izen. And hu­man-rights act­iv­ists ar­gue that drone strikes of­ten kill in­no­cent ci­vil­ians and wind up cre­at­ing em­pathy for the ter­ror­ist group among the loc­al pop­u­la­tion.

Obama said that the Janu­ary strike was con­duc­ted when of­fi­cials de­term­ined that it was their only real op­tion. “Based on the in­tel­li­gence that we had ob­tained at the time, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of hours of sur­veil­lance, we be­lieved that this was an al-Qaida com­pound, that no ci­vil­ians were present, and that cap­tur­ing these ter­ror­ists was not pos­sible,” he said.

Also killed in that strike was Ahmed Farouq, an Amer­ic­an al-Qaida lead­er, while a second strike that same month killed Adam Gadahn, an Amer­ic­an who be­came an al-Qaida spokes­man. The White House ac­know­ledged in a state­ment that in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials were not tar­get­ing them, either, and had no idea they were present in the tar­geted loc­a­tions—just as they did not know al-Qaida was hold­ing Wein­stein and Lo Porto in the com­pound where they wound up dy­ing.

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