PRESIDENT Barack Obama as warrior president, is no different from his predecessor George W. Bush. He has emerged as the author and practitioner of the doctrine of ‘targeted killing’ which is totally opposed to international law and morality.
David Rohde, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former reporter for the New York Times, noted last March that his administration had carried out “at least 239 covert drone strikes, more than five times the 44 approved under George Bush”. There is no accountability, no transparency and no legality.
Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times revealed recently that Obama personally selects the targets. “Mr Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.”
The report created a sensation because of its authenticity and disturbing details. “Mr Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but the terrorist’s family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation. ‘He determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,’ said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser.”
Obama has avoided the complications of detention by deciding, in effect, to take no prisoners alive. While scores of suspects have been killed under Obama, hardly any have been taken into US custody.
Nearly 40 years ago, the US Senate’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, headed by Senator Frank Church, probed the charges of CIA involvement in assassination planning, doubtless with top approval. In a lengthy public report on such plots, the committee concluded that the art of “plausible deniability” may have been so well refined by the CIA that the exact extent of presidential involvement may never be known.
“Whether or not the respective presidents knew of or authorised the plots, as chief executive officer of the US, each must bear the ultimate responsibility for the activities of his subordinates,” the committee said.
The committee revealed in the report the names of 10 US officials involved in the plots to assassinate foreign leaders. The targets included presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba, Sukarno of Indonesia and Patrice Lumumbe of the Congo.
Starting with president Ford, presidents issued executive orders specifically prohibiting the CIA from carrying out assassinations. A change came over later. We now have a president personally designating persons to be killed like a mediaeval monarch.The New York Times expressed its anguish in an editorial recently. “It has been clear for years that the Obama administration believes the shadow war on terrorism gives it the power to choose targets for assassination, including Americans, without any oversight. Now The New York Times has revealed who was making the final decision on the biggest killings and drone strikes: President Obama. And that is very troubling. … How can the world know whether the targets chosen by this president or his successors are truly dangerous terrorists and not just people with the wrong associations? (It is clear, for instance, that many of those rounded up after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks weren’t terrorists.) How can the world know whether this president or a successor truly pursued all methods short of assassination, or instead — to avoid a political charge of weakness — built up a tough-sounding list of kills?”
The Defence Department killed suspects in Yemen without knowing their names, using criteria that were never made public. The administration counted all adult males killed by drone fire as combatants without knowing that for certain. It assumed they are up to no good if they were in the area.
The US Authorisation for Use of Military Force Act 2001 empowers the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against persons linked to the 9/11 attack — a decade ago. However, on May 22, 2010 Obama said: “This is a different kind of war. There will be no simple moment of surrender to mark the journey’s end — no armistice, no banner headline. Though we have had more success in eliminating Al Qaeda leaders in recent months than in recent years, they will continue to recruit, and plot, and exploit our open society.” So, the war will continue and so will the targeted killings by drone attacks.Dr Christine Gray, professor of international law at Cambridge University, is one of the most highly respected authorities on the law. She holds that “even if it is accepted for the sake of argument that targeted killings may sometimes be lawful, it is difficult to argue that they count as self-defence under the UN Charter if the individuals targeted are not actively engaged in an armed attack (broadly construed) on the United States, but are being punished for past attacks, or deterred from non-imminent future attacks.”
The Obama doctrine blurs the distinction between war and peace. It rests on the assumption of continued supremacy in military might. Prof John Fabian Witt of Yale reminds his president: “The awesome technology of the armed drone is ours and ours alone only temporarily. History’s lesson is that what we Americans employ against Abu Yahya al-Libi now will soon be available for use by our adversaries. When that happens, we will desperately want the credibility to judge their actions.”
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai