Barack Obama, Drone Ranger

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MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)

If you’ve seen the movie Zero Dark Thirty, you know why it has triggered a new debate over our government’s use of torture after 9/11.

The movie’s up for an Oscar as best motion picture. We’ll know later this month if it wins. Some people leave the theater claiming the film endorses and even glorifies the use of torture to obtain information that finally led to finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Not true, say the filmmakers, but others argue the world is better off without bin Laden in it, no matter how we had to get him. What’s more, they say, there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/1 — if we have to use an otherwise immoral practice to defend ourselves against such atrocities, we’re okay with it. Or so the argument goes.

The story of bin Laden’s death is just one aspect of the international manhunt the United States has pursued, a worldwide dragnet of detention and death that has raised troubling questions and fervent debate over the fight against terrorism. What about the undermining of civil liberties here at home? The rights of suspects? The secret surveillance of American citizens? The swollen executive powers first claimed by George W. Bush and now by Barack Obama?

Soon after he succeeded Bush, President Obama announced he would not permit torture and would close down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. He also said:

“The orders that I sign today should send an unmistakable signal that our actions in defense of liberty will be just as our cause. And that we the people will uphold our fundamental values as vigilantly as we protect our security. Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership”

Four years later, Guantanamo remains open. In fact, just a few days ago, the State Department announced it was eliminating the office assigned to close the prison and move its detainees.

Because of logjams in the process of military justice, alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others have yet to come to trial. And there’s continuing controversy about the lack of oversight and transparency surrounding the detention and interrogation of suspects both here and abroad.

Meanwhile, President Obama has stepped up the use of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists abroad, not only in Afghanistan but in countries where we’re not at war, including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. As the Brookings Institution’s Peter Singer wrote in The New York Times a year ago, “… A new technology is short-circuiting the decision-making process for what used to be the most important choice a democracy could make. Something that would have previously been viewed as a war is simply not being treated like a war.”

Just last week, as reports came of more deaths by drone — including three attacks in Yemen, with 13 dead — the United Nations announced an investigation into the legality of drones and their deadly toll on the innocent. According to UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson:

“The central objective of the investigation… is to look at the evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killing have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances… It’s both right as a matter of principle, and inevitable as a matter of political reality, that the international community should now be focusing attention on the standards applicable to this technological development.”

Since Barack Obama took office, the aerial assaults also have killed three U.S. citizens, raising additional arguments as to whether the president has the right to order the death of Americans suspected of terrorism without due process of law. One of those controversial drone attacks involved the killing of Anwar al-Awalki, an American citizen and radical Muslim cleric who had moved to Yemen with his family. He was said to be the brains behind repeated attempts to attack the U.S., including the Christmas day underwear bomber plot in 2009 that would have blown up a passenger jet over Detroit. Also dead was American citizen Samir Khan, editor of “Inspire,” al Qaeda ‘s online propaganda magazine, and two weeks later, in a separate drone attack, al-Awalki’s 16-year-old son, born in Denver.

A key player in our government’s current drone program is John Brennan, who during the Bush presidency was a senior official at the Central Intelligence Agency and head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Reportedly, Barack Obama considered offering him the top job at the CIA in 2008, but public opposition — in reaction to the charges that the Bush White House had approved torture — caused Brennan to withdraw his name from consideration. Nonetheless, Obama kept him on as an adviser, and now, despite Brennan’s past notoriety, Obama officially has chosen him to head the CIA. This time, there’s been little criticism of the decision.

We hope Brennan’s upcoming confirmation hearings on February 7 will offer Congressional critics the chance to press him on drone attacks and whether the Obama administration in its fight against terror is functioning within the rule of law — or abusing presidential power when there has been no formal declaration of war.

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  • Fred Drumlevitch

    Yes, our drone strikes in foreign nations are acts of war.

    But they stand as just a subset of the many acts of war that this nation has unleashed since 1945 without formally declaring war.

    Perhaps the ease with which acts of war can be ordered is the heart of the problem. To repeat what I wrote as a comment posted to Bob Herbert’s New York Times column of August 30, 2010 “We Owe the Troops an Exit”:

    War-making powers should be unambiguously returned to the legislative branch, where a 90% affirmative vote from both houses of Congress should be required for war. (The military-industrial complex will undoubtedly object, but shouldn’t we make the threshold for war at least as high as the traditional threshold for an “A” grade on an exam?). Additionally, in accordance with the old adage “put your money where your mouth is”, any elected official advocating war or voting for one should be subject to an immediate 100% income tax increase. (This might also be applied for the symbolic speech of American flag lapel pins). Proponents of war who hold public office would also face immediate conscription into a front-line infantry unit, at the lowest military rank, allowing them to live (or die) their advocacy.

  • Donald Shank

    I can’t help but wonder where the right wing outrage is over this unchecked executive power. They scream loudly over the possibility of having magazine capacity limited to ten rounds, but ignore torture and assassination by remote control. If they really fear tyranny, I’d think drones & gitmo (or for that matter the corrupting influence of money in politics) are far greater threats than background checks for gun buyers.

  • Gerald Alch

    The 9/11 attack officialized a war against al Qaeda and Muslim extremists of its ilk. They are hellbent upon destroying us, gladly committing suicide to do it. This obviates their dubious right to any semblance of due process. To suggest otherwise is more than naivete, it is stupidity. There is collateral damage in every war. The use of drones serves as a substitute for American troops on the ground, in harms way. Any complaint that a Muslim enemy, who may technically be a U.S. citizen, is being denied Due Process by the use of drones engages in the height of pseudo-intellectualism. Get real. An individual devoted to destroying us requires similar payback. It’s one thing to be a supporter of moral and constitutional rights, but quite another to be blind to practical reality. Whatever works against al Qaeda et al, is the right way to go. Wake up and smell the coffee. Or better yet, talk with the kin and friends of 9/11 victims. That should effectuate mental sobriety. Just maybe.

  • Al

    Ron Paul had a good idea. What would happen if we treated other nations the way we want to be treated?

  • Francis Battaglia

    Dear Mr. Moyers,

    Thank you, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, for raising such important questions and addressing this important issue. I wanted to add that I think it’s important to widen the scope of the analysis on drones here, given the fact that there are now several countries using them. I mean our nation using drones is one thing. But it’s quite another to have multiple countries using drones (please see Who is going to stop presidents in other countries from making the same claims as our president? We are setting a horrific example as well as a deadly precedent! Claiming rights to assassinate human beings without due process of law invites worldwide retaliation by extension, and is a gross violation of justice and the rule of law as we have defined such things for the last 800 years (Magna Carta). A suspect of anything is still just a suspect – innocent until proven guilty – unless we are changing that rule too.

    As a longtime fan and a student of journalism (I received a degree in Communications, Political Science and Journalism many years ago from the University of Delaware), I have a special request for Mr. Moyers, who I see as one of our nation’s very best journalists.

    Mr. Moyers, please take the time to examine the evidence that has come forward in recent years regarding the events of the day on September 11, 2001. In particular, I am sorry to say there is overwhelming evidence of controlled demolition at the World Trade Center, unless one can find an explanation which addresses the significance of a steel-structured building undergoing free fall acceleration (as World Trade Building Seven did at 5:20pm on 9/11).

    Our media, as well as our government’s engineers and publications including Popular Science, have all failed to address the significance of this event thus far. There are many highly-credible professionals in agreement – thousands of architects and engineers as well as one of our nation’s top scientists (the recipient of The President’s National Medal of Science in 1999) – concluding that the Twin Towers and Building 7 were all destroyed by controlled demolitions on 9/11. It’s what the physics and the evidence reveals: “overwhelming evidence of high temperature incendiaries” found in all dust samples at Ground Zero, free-fall acceleration of a steel-structured building understood to be impossible without secondary explosives, the amount of energy required to destroy all three buildings in under 12 seconds was not provided by two airplanes and jet fuel alone.

    Please examine the evidence. I realize there is a strong tendency to deny or ignore any such thing – the evidence is difficult to consider. But we must. Over 1700 architects & engineers are asking us all to take another look at 9/11 and the official story, if we want to see peace again, put permanent war behind us, and get some real perspective on the event which got us started on this global war against an abstract noun, drone warfare, torture and so many other missteps to put it lightly. Please listen to the experts, not me. They are taking a stand, putting careers and reputations on the line at Architects & Engineers For 9/11 Truth, presenting forensic scientific evidence and information without speculation or conspiracy. As Producer and Editor of the film, I would be honored if you would take the time to view it at your convenience. Thank you and God bless.


    Francis Battaglia

  • KBeckwith

    What lame, mealy mouthed, hand wringing. We (Americans) are being attacked at home and all over world and murdered! How about turning this chorus of “moralist” criticisms on the terrorists? Hello people…..Or is that just too politically incorrect? It appears to me that in large part, a great proportion of these “critics”, who only criticize American actions in war, do so because it is directly tied to the funding of their NGO, their NPO, their Network and/or their lifestyles.

  • sean


    They say that drones are in the sky

    Watching me I wonder why?

    Did I jay walk today

    Or run a red light on my way

    My words maybe of a terrorist

    But fearing me you surely jest

    No investigation or charge

    No Bolo or he’s at large

    No trial by my peers

    As the targets body seers

    Its 20th century war

    What’s Big Brother have in store?

  • Tom Langley

    There is something horrible poetic about a book thumpingly christian branch of the military, (I live near the Academy in CO – believe me – they thump thier christian bibles LOUDLY), being in control of raining “hellfire” on muslims. The fight that has killed so many humans for the last three thousand years rages on, nay, is encouraged, by name, device, and warriors who should know better but can’t free themselves from the deadly dogma of organized religion and the currency of States.

  • Anonymous

    I think its time to take it to the streets… except many anti-authoritarians who once might have questioned authority are now medicated:

    No wonder nobody is raising any hell these days.

  • gloria van brocklin

    While I understand the constitutional implications of the problems with drones, I prefer they
    use them instead of sending the troops to these unlawful places. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Nothing justifies killing civilians
    but it did and does happen. Drones are the least of the horrors.
    Signed, GvanB

  • Lem Genovese

    This is the “Terminator” scenario come to life in real time. Remote control aircraft with the capability to “surgically remove” unwanted pests with a “minimum of collateral damage”. Due process, international respect for sovereignty of air space, laws forbidding the destruction of non-military structures and deaths of innocent civilians are all up for grabs with the US use of drone aircraft.

  • Bet Power

    If you don’t want terrorism, don’t terrorize.

  • arnold

    I watched the program and found it very informative. Bush started the program and few complained about it back then and Obama is continuing it. Drone strikes good or bad I know not, they are targeting those that want to cause harm to the rest of the free world not just the United States. One way to stop the Drones from targeting and killing those individuals who are planning harm for the rest of us and that is for them, al-Queda etc… to stop, cease and desist from all hostilities in Afghanistan, Oman, Pakistan and any other country that al-Queda and its affiliates are hiding and peruse for Peace and leave this countries alone and disband their extremist organizations and ideologies and go back to living in a peaceful manner.

  • Anonymous

    “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: Stop participating in it.” ―Noam Chomsky

  • fredlinskip

    “War approved by Congress is not illegal”
    So because we have declared perpetual War, we can use drones where and whenever we please.
    As far as civilians that die for high crime of being in wrong place at wrong time – you have to break some eggs for an omelet- most of’em are godless Arabs anyway.
    When innocents die, this is actually GOOD thing because it helps generate the perpetual hate necessary to recruit more terrorists, which in turn justifies our congressionally declared perpetual War.
    And without justification for perpetual War how could we POSSIBLY justify 100 billion a month military budget?
    It’s a “virtuous circle”.

  • Dean Libey

    ” Once again, America’s moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership” So declares our president while killing innocent men, woman and children. King Obama leads his people not by example but by empty words that too many believe. I’ll not be surprised by the first drone strike on American soil and we will swallow the reason why; hook, line and sinker.

  • Dean Libey

    what makes you think America has any right to be there in the first place? The USA does not own the world. Obviously we create terrorists with every drone strike. And what is the purpose of that? To create a perpetual war. Which benefits whom?

  • stsheetrock

    Now dumb down, Stupendous! Hold your breath, shut-up, sit down &
    listen Assange! Whee drone is News flummox then John Brennan is Gorm “a
    vulgar substitute for (God) damn,” What I admire in Obama that he sports Torturing
    Republican Frugals at the Hill with devil-may-care. Drones are another Redherring
    fallacy that lawmakers toy intentionally or unintentionally misleading or
    distracting American fools from Capitol failures. Pinocchio nose grows whenever
    he lies unlike Obama his ears grow whenever he fools American fools. I will
    take these propagandized cartoons more seriously only if Obama tell the truth
    that he never told American fools that most of Obama Dronamatic Payloads are
    controlled by Taliban boys not by Boeing Fatass Atari-Boys in Mojave Desert who
    usually gun-down anything that moves on their little screen mainly sleeping babies,
    elders, women & cats in garbage cans. Drones are eliminating Taliban
    Rivals. Courtesy of Langley Grafted Bitches.