As Bush was the Guantánamo president, so Obama is the drone president

Stephen Holmes writes: ‘It is not a function of not trying to take people to Guantánamo,’ the US attorney general, Eric Holder, told a Senate subcommittee on 6 June as he struggled to defend President Obama’s targeted killing programme. His ungainly syntax betrayed his acute embarrassment. He is not the only government spokesman who finds it difficult to answer questions about America’s loosing of drones onto the world.

A central thesis of Mark Mazzetti’s book is that the CIA and the Pentagon have opted to hunt and kill suspected enemies in order to avoid the extra-legal tactics of capture and interrogation adopted under Obama’s predecessor. Mazzetti returns to this charge numerous times, in a characteristically understated way: ‘With few options for detaining terror suspects, and little appetite for extensive ground operations in Somalia, killing sometimes was a far more appealing option than capturing.’ Or: ‘Killing was the preferred course of action in Somalia, and as one person involved in the mission planning put it, “We didn’t capture him because it would have been hard to find a place to put him.”’ In other words, the administration doubled-down on what look suspiciously like extrajudicial executions, faute de mieux, after shuttering Bush’s black sites and deciding not to send anyone else to Guantánamo, where approximately a third of the hundred detainees on hunger strike are receiving a macabre form of Obamacare through tubes in their noses.

Mazzetti adds, as a second unspoken and perhaps unspeakable explanation for Obama’s escalation of drone warfare, that the members of the intelligence establishment were afraid they could be held legally responsible for engaging in torture, a felony under American law. If we follow this account, Obama’s controversial ramping up of drone killings was driven in part by rumblings of rebellion at the CIA, where fear of being hung out to dry by bait-and-switch politicians is legendary. By the time Obama stepped smartly into office, the agency was apparently preoccupied by the possibility that ‘covert officers working at the CIA prisons could be prosecuted for their work.’ This dampened the interrogators’ enthusiasm for extracting information by physically and psychologically abusing their prisoners: ‘each hit the CIA took for its detention-and-interrogation programme pushed CIA leaders further to one side of a morbid calculation that the agency would be far better off killing, rather than jailing, terror suspects.’ According to John Rizzo, a career CIA lawyer, Obama officials ‘never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable … Once the interrogation was gone, all that was left was the killing.’ Summarising his interviews with Rizzo and other insiders, Mazzetti concludes: ‘Armed drones, and targeted killing in general, offered a new direction for a spy agency that had begun to feel burned by its years in the detention-and-interrogation business.’

The inflammatory implication of this charge is that ‘liberal criticism’ of an unnecessarily harsh and negligently supervised but only sporadically lethal national security policy bears some responsibility for Obama’s swing towards sudden death by drones. [Continue reading…]

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