Obama's Drone "Reforms"—More Assassinations, More War Crimes

Larry Everest | February 17, 2014

Last May 23, in a major speech on the "war on terror," President Barack Obama claimed he was instituting new, more extensive legal oversight of U.S. drone strikes, and repeated his commitment to "due process." Obama's speech was, in part, a response to the widespread global outrage at his escalation of drone strikes (four times the number conducted by George W. Bush), the tensions that these had created between the U.S. and its allies, as well as what Obama acknowledged were the "constitutional issues" raised by the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and three other American citizens in drone strikes—in other words, profound issues of legality and legitimacy.

Obama's May 23 speech was full of reassurances and legal buzzwords: he claimed he agonized deeply before blowing someone to bits with a drone missile, he was adhering to due process, and that he was now instituting even more transparency and new restrictions. "I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen—with a drone, or a shotgun—without due process," he claimed. "I've insisted on strong oversight... submitted information....briefed the Congress" before the al-Awlaki strike, we've set a "high threshold" before killing anyone, now we want to "extend oversight" even more. All this to reassure people that things had changed—the U.S. government was no longer run by the cowboy Bush regime which seemed to take pride in openly twisting or flouting existing law and precedent.

Now, on February 10, some eight months after Obama's speech, the New York Times reported that the U.S. was once again discussing assassinating a U.S. citizen:

"The Obama administration is debating whether to authorize a lethal strike against an American citizen living in Pakistan who some believe is actively plotting terrorist attacks...The officials would not confirm the identity of the suspect, or provide any information about what evidence they have amassed about the suspect's involvement in attacks against Americans. ...Details about the deliberations—including the identity of the proposed target, what he is accused of doing and the quality of any evidence against him—remain murky."

The Times noted that this "is the first time American officials have actively discussed killing an American citizen overseas since President Obama imposed new restrictions on drone operations last May." ("U.S. Debates Drone Strike on American Terrorism Suspect in Pakistan," New York Times, February 10, 2014)

Let's walk through what's actually going on here (including decoding the New York Times' dispassionate, euphemism-filled coverage).

  • The Obama administration is discussing whether or not to assassinate a U.S. citizen who has not been accused of actually committing a crime or an act of terror. He or she is supposedly suspected of plotting against the U.S. As Jeremy Scahill put it on Democracy Now! "we're living in the era of pre-crime" (from the movie "Minority Report," based on a science-fiction novel by Philip K. Dick), in which the U.S. kills people who it "thinks—doesn't necessarily know, but thinks—may one day pose some sort of a threat of committing an act of terrorism or of impacting U.S. interests." (Democracy Now!, February 10. 2014)
  • Due process is supposedly foundational to the U.S. legal system, Constitution and democracy for all American citizens but here there is none in this case: suspected target has not been named, and no evidence has been produced against this person. Charges are not made public, they are not brought to a court of law, the accused is not allowed legal counsel, access to the evidence used against him or her, and the chance to defend themselves.

So now it turns out the reforms and "oversight" promised by Obama are meaningless. According to The New York Times, one change was that only the Pentagon would conduct strikes against Americans in order to make them more "transparent"—although the CIA could carry them out if need be; and those targeted would supposedly have to pose "a continuing, imminent threat against Americans." But even the Times admitted all this remains shrouded in secrecy: "Details about the deliberations—including the identity of the proposed target, what he is accused of doing and the quality of any evidence against him—remain murky."

As Revolution summed up after Obama's May 23 speech:

"... [T]he due process that has been in effect is not the due process of law and judicial review. It is process of review and secret decision-making of the executive branch without recourse to open courts and any kind of civil liberties or rights at all for those targeted for assassination. Again, as in the Bush years, it is the 'trust us, we know'—in this case, the deliberation of the president and advisors as they draw up and review 'kill lists' is called 'due process.' Obama raised the possibility of some kind of oversight mechanism—but the goal is simply to provide a legal fig leaf for executive action, for the broad authority to strike terror, instant incineration, outside any battle zone." ("Obama's Speech: Not a Step in the Right Direction, But Justification for Assassination, Torture, and Unjust War" Revolution #305, May 30, 2013)

What Glenn Greenwald—investigative journalist who, along with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, was the first to receive and publish Edward Snowden's leaked NSA documents—wrote after Obama's recent NSA speech, applies to drones as well: "The crux of this tactic is that U.S. political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are 'serious questions that have been raised.' They vow changes to fix the system and ensure that these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic 'reforms' so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge." ("'Reforms' Aimed at Keeping Mass Surveillance Intact" Revolution #329, February 3, 2014)

So the U.S. imperialist state is still acting, in secret as judge, jury and executioner—to advance the interests of empire .

Glenn Greenwald calls this state of affairs, "the most extremist and out-of-control government you can get." (Democracy Now!, February 10, 2014)

He's right about the extremist part, but the government isn't "out of control." It is being controlled, tightly controlled by the top political operatives of the capitalist ruling class. In fact, the entire state apparatus is part of a dictatorship of the capitalist class. Now the makeup is peeling off.

In order to maintain and strengthen their global empire, the U.S. rulers feel the need to murder people opposing—or suspected of opposing—their wars, interventions, and/or political and economic interests. It's those needs of capitalism-imperialism that dictate law, policy, and actions—not general principles of "human rights," "due process," or "democracy." All the political structures in the U.S.—the presidency, the Congress, the courts, the media—serve the needs of capitalism-imperialism. And today the gutting of fundamental rights including executive assassinations has been normalized.

This is another example showing why placing any faith in U.S. officials or working to reform this system and its political structures is worthless, and the notion of "saving" or "restoring our democracy" is an illusion.

This article originally appeared on revcom.us on February 17, 2014.

Main Covert Drone War Obama's Drone "Reforms"—More Assassinations, More War Crimes

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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.