Tom Hayden : Is President Taking New Tack on Counterterrorism?

President Obama speaks about his administration’s counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University in Washington, May 23, 2013. Photo by Larry Downing / Reuters.

Obama responding to critics:  
Tide turning on counterterrorism secrecy

While defending his military policies as constitutional, the president was promising to wind down the ‘forever war,’ sharply reduce drone attacks, repatriate detainees to Yemen, and move again to close Guantanamo.

By Tom Hayden | The Rag Blog | May 29, 2013

President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on counterterrorism revealed a commander-in-chief increasingly worried about political criticism of his Guantanamo detentions, his penchant for secrecy, and his drone warfare policies. Where Obama has shielded his policies on the basis of external terrorist threats, he now is responding to critics who threaten to upset domestic support for those policies abroad.

In past years, Obama has defended himself against attacks from neoconservative hawks and senators like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham, who charged him with being “soft” on terrorism. But on May 23, while defending his military policies as constitutional, the president was promising to wind down the “forever war,” sharply reduce drone attacks, repatriate detainees to Yemen, and move again to close Guantanamo.

When disrupted by CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, Obama spontaneously said that Benjamin was “worth paying attention to,” and that he was “willing to cut the young lady who interrupted [him] some slack because it’s worth being passionate about.”

Such a gesture will hardly pacify CodePink or the president’s antiwar critics. But their criticisms have become a factor in the national debate. To criticize the president’s speech as “nothing new” is to miss the primary reason for which the speech was given: to explain a careful withdrawal from the Global War on Terrorism paradigm, the heinous impasse at Guantanamo, and the massive secrecy around drones.

The President was cautious in explaining his pivot toward deescalation, mindful that incidents like Benghazi or the Boston Marathon bombings can block his deescalation path, or at least complicate it severely.

The speech, along with Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter and background briefings, for the first time revealed the following:

  • Obama let it be known that the CIA will cede its control of the drone war to the Pentagon in six months, opening the way to greater public transparency and overdue congressional debate — Pentagon budgets can be amended while CIA items are unmentionable secrets in Washington;
  • Obama called the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force “near obsolete” and proposed its eventual repeal;
  • Clarified that drones will not be used after American ground forces leave Afghanistan, a signal the Taliban and Pakistan will hear;
  • Vowed to “limit the use of lethal force” to only those targets considered to be ”continuing, imminent threat(s) to Americans,” which could “signal an end” (according to The New York Times) of so-called “signature strikes” or where the threats are to partner-states but not American personnel;
  • Acknowledged for the first time that U.S. drone attacks have killed civilians;
  • Declassified the official information that the U.S. killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other Americans;
  • Dropped its judicial effort to block a California lawsuit seeking materials related to al-Awlaki’s killing;
  • Announced consultations with the media and a report on new whistleblower guidelines by July 12;
  • Appointed a new State Department official “to achieve the transfer” of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo.

The ramifications of the Obama speech and Holder letter will be felt in the weeks ahead. Asked if there will be effects on existing human rights cases, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) said, “It does, because they never admitted to killing Abdul Rahman, the teenager, in the court papers, nor did they acknowledge that they killed people that they were not targeting. I have a sense that their legal justifications are going to shift, but not sure to what. [It] may be clearer in the coming weeks.”

In a related development, federal judge Rosemary Collyer required the Justice Department to report in two weeks on how the admissions affected the legal issues in the case. While defining al-Awlaki as a justifiable security threat, the administration now says the other three deaths, including aw-Awlaki’s 16-year old son, were not specifically targeted, raising the question of whether the administration will be held accountable in the federal court.

This article was also published at

[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. Hayden is director of the Peace and Justice Resource center and editor of The Peace Exchange Bulletin. Read more of Tom Hayden’s writing on The Rag Blog.]

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4 Responses to Tom Hayden : Is President Taking New Tack on Counterterrorism?

  1. Anonymous says:

    For his first Nobel Peace prize, Obama had only to give a few speeches and offer not to treat the Muslim world as subjects quite as much as we had before.

    But as Tom Hayden points out the president is going all the way this time. i.e. admitting maybe we blew up some civilians with our drones (more actually than the Marathon bomber did), announcing “consultations” with the media, and announcing the drone program will be more “transparent” when its in the pentagons hands (and we all know he couldn’t have said it out loud if it wasn’t true)

    Maybe this time the president will get two Nobel Peace Prizes. Or maybe the Nobel committee will create an “ultimate humanitarian and really nice guy” award just for Obama. I bet Tom would think that was swell.

    Having read Harry Targ’s recent article (Benghazi scandal) on here about media apologists facilitating our empire building and other crimes abroad, I think I see one now. You have been outed Tom Hayden. Take your “new tack” and put it with the old tack. Its all the same shell game.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

  2. Anonymous says:

    Typically, Obama did what he does best – talk. He soothed us by telling us all the things he claims to want to do that we agree with. Hot air. Five years of experience with this man have amply demonstrated that he must be judged solely on his actions. In the absence of action, his eloquent words are meant to deceive you with the illusion that he is some kind of “progressive”.
    David Hamilton

  3. Jim Turpin says:

    As a member of CodePink Austin, I applaud Medea Benjamin’s continued efforts to hold the Obama administration accountable for the increased use of Executive power. My take is that while there is obvious obstructionism in Congress, the President could have done much more to end the harmful blowback from the “War on Terror”. This administration has taken the AUMF, the Patriot Act, and now the use of unlimited access to electronic media to mercilessly drone missile strike civilians (any male above 12 is now deemed an acceptable target) and assasinated American citizens without due process. While I admire the content and rhetoric of this policy layout, I wait for true actions and results. Once power is given, it is unlikely to be laid aside…I have grave doubts that much of anything will result from this speech.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Once power is given, it is unlikely to be laid aside
    Now you know why many of us defend our rights to own and use weapons so vigorously. A government that will blow up a 12 year old boy in Yemen, will not hesitate to do so in Texas, as long as the press covers for them. And when people are too uninvolved or too scared to resist, they wont even bother covering it up. (See Bushes WMD lie and the Patriot act, and Obama’s IRS, gun running, and Benghazi scandal for examples of this exact progression)

    As we have seen over the last 50 years or so, once you start to cede your rights to a government, regardless of party control, those rights are gone forever. And the day may be coming, sooner than we expect, when armed, pissed-off, citizens are all that stand between the loss of your free speech, the loss of your freedom of assembly and the loss of all of your other God given freedoms.

    – Extremist2TheDHS

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