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
S.V. Dáte
Add to Briefcase
S.V. Dáte
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.

What We're Following See More »
FELONY INVASION OF PRIVACY CHARGES
Gov. Eric Greitens (R-MO) Indicted
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Greitens "was indicted by an St. Louis grand jury...The indictment stems from allegations he threatened to release a naked photo of a woman he was having an affair with if she revealed their relationship."

Source:
32 COUNTS
Mueller Hits Manafort, Gates with New Charges
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

Robert Mueller announced new charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort advisor Rick Gates. "The new indictment contains 32 counts, including tax charges." The pair had been indicted on 12 charges in October. Since then, Gates's attorneys have asked to be excused from the case.

Source:
SENATE WILL REMAIN ON SCHEDULE
Wednesday, Thursday Votes Canceled in Deference to Graham
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The House is shortening its Feb. 26 work week, canceling votes that Wednesday and Thursday, for the late Rev. Billy Graham to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda." The Senate still plans on voting all week.

Source:
BRIBERY CHARGES DROPPED AGAINST SENATOR
Menendez Friend Gets 17 Years for Medicare Fraud
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a Florida eye doctor linked to Sen. Bob Menendez to 17 years in prison for stealing $73 million in one of history's largest Medicare frauds. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra sentenced Dr. Salomon Melgen for 67 crimes, including health-care fraud, submitting false claims and falsifying records in patients' files." In a related case, Menendez was tried for taking bribes from Melgen, but the trial ended in a hung jury.

Source:
GOWDY ASKS FOR DOCUMENTS
House Oversight to Look at Pruitt Flights
8 hours ago
THE LATEST

"As questions about the official travel habits of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt mount, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is demanding documents and other information on his first-class flights, as it looks into whether federal laws were broken."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login