Obama’s preference for killing terrorists rather than torturing them

In a review of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden, Steve Coll writes:

In early 2009, in a speech at the National Archives, Obama announced that he would end the policy of using interrogation methods judged to be torture by the International Red Cross, and that he would close Guantánamo’s prison. He indicated that he would be open to trying some terrorists before military commissions, rather than dispatching all of Guantánamo’s inmates to federal courtrooms, but he declared that we “cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.” He promised policies based on “an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process.” He added that “fidelity to our values” is the “reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s Armed Forces than from their own government.”

In the years since, the president has struggled to live up to those pledges. In the one case where he took a major political risk to try a high-profile al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist in federal court, his decision ended badly. In late 2009, on the recommendation of Attorney General Holder, Obama ordered Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the bin Laden ally who masterminded the September 11 attacks, transferred from Guantánamo to stand trial in the Southern District of New York. Republicans accused Obama of going soft and whipped up a political backlash that forced the president to retreat; Mohammed is now facing a trial before a military commission at Guantánamo.

In planning for Abbottabad, White House lawyers would almost certainly have assured Obama that it would be legal to kill bin Laden outright. The “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” enacted by Congress a week after the September 11 attacks provided for the use of deadly force against al-Qaeda’s leaders. Also, under international and American laws arising from the rights of self-defense, if a terrorist is actively planning deadly operations, it can be legal to strike first. We know from White House disclosures that Obama seriously considered bombing the Abbottabad compound to smithereens. He demurred out of concern that it might not be clear after the attack whether bin Laden had been there at all. Yet if the president had decided on bombing, he would surely have justified his decision by pointing to the principles of self-defense, just as he uses this doctrine to justify the dozens of drone strikes he has authorized against suspected militants in countries where the United States is not formally at war.

The Abbottabad raid, as it was ultimately designed, seems to have brought into play different questions of international and American law concerning the requirement of soldiers to accept surrenders when they are offered. Having chosen to go in on the ground, Obama evidently did not wish to design a mission that precluded the theoretical possibility that bin Laden might surrender. Instead, he approved rules of engagement that made bin Laden’s surrender all but impossible.

Coll concludes:

[T]he Obama administration’s terrorist-targeting and detention system is heavily biased toward killing, inconsonant with constitutional and democratic principles, and unsustainable. The president has become personally invested in a system of targeted killing of dozens of suspected militants annually by drone strikes and Special Forces raids where the legal standards employed to designate targets for lethal action or to review periodic reports of mistakes are entirely secret.

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