President Obama appeared strong and dedicated last week (May 23, 2013) in his speech before the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., as he addressed two important concerns: a new era in the war on terror, and an ending of a foul complication of that war, the ongoing detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The president, speaking of the war on terror, said: “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.” The global war on terror began with the September 11, 2001 attacks on targets in the United States including the World Trade Center in New York City and Pentagon headquarters in Arlington County, Virginia. Islamic fundamentalists, organized into a war machine, Al Qaeda, have been the primary purveyors of terror, and the primary targets of the war on terror.
Stemming from this war without boundaries, two significant developments have occurred. First, suspected terrorists have been held indefinitely, in many cases for periods of 10 years or more, without trial by our government, in a secure detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some of the suspects are young, some perhaps innocent. Many of these detainees have been subjected to cruel torture, as is well documented. Torture of any suspected criminal is anathema to most Americans; it is also unnecessary and non-productive. Law enforcement agencies have extracted information from miscreants for decades, without resorting to cruel torture.
Second, and more recently, the United States and some allies have begun using unmanned remotely guided aircraft – drones – to stalk and kill suspected terrorists, and to bombard terrorist enclaves. Some pre-identified terrorists have been eliminated by these drone aircraft, but innocent civilian non-combatants have also given their lives. It remains true that unjustifiable killing only serves to engender more terrorism, and that the terrorists perceive legitimacy in their responses. Further, those intentionally targeted are in that manner executed without hearing or trial.
President Obama addressed these issues. He has promised, since before his first term in office, to close down the brutal Guantanamo center. Democrats claim the president’s efforts have been undermined by Republicans in Congress; Republicans claim his efforts have been inadequate. Republicans maintain that trying those incarcerated would give rise to new terror attacks. They have suggested that cities near American-based detention centers might be threatened by the presence of global terrorists, many of whom have been held in maximum security prisons for years, awaiting justice.
Renewing his longstanding vow to close the Guantanamo center, Obama is now making a sustained effort regardless of congressional approval to lift a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen, and to appoint a State Department coordinator to work with Congress to break the longstanding deadlock. Obama called the Cuba detention center “a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” “There is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should never have been opened,” Obama said.
Currently 103 of 166 Guantanamo inmates are being force-fed, in concert with a hunger strike and the demands of the detained for trial.
Our president declares that Congress needs to act. He urges members to loosen restriction on moving the suspects, to approve more money for security at U.S. facilities overseas, and finally an end to “a perpetual wartime footing.” Obama cites the changes in the law dating to the George W. Bush administration that altered America’s view of rights and freedoms, and demands an end to that era. He, president himself, says those Bush-era laws give the president too much power.
The president outlined new rules for drone usage. Drone aircraft, piloted by military personnel hundreds of miles from the war-torn areas, are, we now know, more likely to show an abuse of power than traditional manned aircraft. Under the new rules, control of the program would move from the CIA to the U. S. Defense Department. This would result in more Congressional oversight in most regions, although ironically not in Pakistan, where the CIA would continue to man the operations. Pakistan, once an American ally, moves farther away from our nation daily and toward stronger ties with China and Russia. Many civilians in Pakistan have died as a result of drone strikes. Their cries seem to go unnoticed.
Last week, on May 22, it was revealed that four Americans suspected of terrorism have been killed since 2009. In a world where “All men are created equal,” “endowed with … inalienable rights,” the distinction of citizenship appears unsustainable. Obama recalled the strike that killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki; he called al-Awlaki a terrorist leader, continually “trying to kill people.” Obama justifies drone strikes saying they “have saved lives.” He says he is “haunted” by civilian casualties.
The new rules of conduct regarding drone strikes indicate their firepower will be confined to suspects who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and who cannot otherwise be captured. “Before any strike is taken,” the president said, “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured; the highest standard we can set.” Any target, under these guidelines, needs be a senior operational leader of a terrorist group. In addition, a capture of the individual involved must be deemed “impossible.”
Additionally, the Obama speech included reference to “freedom of the press.” The president urged Congress to approve a federal “shield law” to protect reporters from revealing confidential information sources. This is fundamental to our American freedoms. But the president said the government has to strike a balance between press freedom and the need to protect sensitive national security information. This new addendum may give rise to concern; The president’s need for balance could in time mean a debacle of restricted press freedom.