If you followed the coverage of President Barack Obama’s May 23 speech at the National Defense University, you would think something big happened to the “war on terror.” Specifically, its scope was narrowed, perhaps considerably, as the war as it is currently being waged winds down.
That was probably the message the White House wanted the press to send. But is it true?
On ABC World News (5/23/13), Dan Harris said that Obama “essentially redefined America’s war on terror.” NBC Nightly News‘ Peter Alexander (5/23/13) reported that Obama “laid out clearer, more narrow guidelines for deadly drone strikes, arguing that they are legal and carefully considered.” On CBS Evening News (5/23/13), anchor Scott Pelley called it “a more targeted battle” and correspondent Major Garrett said that Obama “ordered sharp new limits on drone killings with the Pentagon, not the CIA, calling the shots.”
In the New York Times (5/24/13), under the headline “Pivoting From a War Footing, Obama Acts to Curtail Drones,” Peter Baker wrote that the message from Obama was that it “was time to narrow the scope of the grinding battle against terrorists,” and that Obama was “redefining what has been a global war into a more targeted assault on terrorist groups threatening the United States.”
The paper’s editorial page gave a rave review to Obama’s speech. In the editorial, “The End of the Perpetual War” (5/24/13), the Times called it “a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America.” Among the most important changes, according to the paper, was an end to “signature strikes”:
From now on, the Central Intelligence Agency and the military will no longer target individuals or groups of people in countries like Pakistan based merely on the suspicion that their location or actions link them to Al-Qaeda or other groups allied with the terrorist network. Those attacks, referred to as “signature strikes,” have slaughtered an untold number of civilians and have become as damaging a symbol of American overreach as the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
But was that really the message of Obama’s speech?
McClatchy‘s dispatch (5/23/13) about the event made it sound like they had heard another speech entirely. Under the headline “Obama Speech Suggests Possible Expansion of Drone Killings,” reporters Lesley Clark and Jonathan Landay declared that Obama “appeared to be laying groundwork for an expansion of the controversial targeted killings. ” They explained:
But Obama’s speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed “lethal actions” in apparent anticipation of an overhaul of the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Al-Qaeda and allied groups that supported the 9/11 attacks on the United States. In every previous speech, interview and congressional testimony, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed “senior operational leaders of Al-Qaeda and associated forces” plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States.
But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders. While saying that the United States is at war with Al-Qaeda and its associated forces, he used a variety of descriptions of potential targets, from “those who want to kill us” and “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat” to “all potential terrorist targets.” The previous wording also was absent from a fact sheet distributed by the White House. Targeted killings outside of “areas of active hostilities,” it said, could be used against “a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks.”
On the matter of “signature strikes,” Sarah Knuckey and Ryan Goodman wrote at Esquire (5/24/13):
Some suggest that the new rules put an end to controversial signature strikes, carried out based on patterns of behavior assumed to indicate militancy. The new rules do finally rebut reports (sourced originally to anonymous government officials) that “all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.” Yet there is no clarity at all about what actual “signatures” were used, or might still be in use. Nothing in the new rules requires that the government kill only named targets, and nothing in the rules prohibits behavior-based targeting. On the contrary, senior administration officials, hours before the president’s speech, suggested that signature strikes will continue but perhaps decrease “over time.”
And as Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (5/24/13) wrote, “Two of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. covert drone campaign–CIA control of strikes in Pakistan, and the use of so-called signature strikes–look set to continue until at least 2014.”
Other analysts were trying to determine what, precisely, the speech had changed. Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution (Lawfare, 5/23/13) wrote:
I can’t tell at this stage whether there’s really been a substantial narrowing–that is, whether there are people whom the U.S. used to target whom it is, as a matter of new policy, no longer targeting because the president regards the AUMF conflict as winding down and in its end phase.
After the speech, some critics were left to say that word would matter less than deeds–which is obviously true. But it seems that the words might not even mean what they appear to mean. The administration appears to still be at work selling the speech’s significance–Peter Baker of the New York Times has a piece today, drawn heavily from administration sources, explaining the genesis of Obama’s speech and attempting to once more clarify its practical implications.
As Baker acknowledged, “Even as he set new standards, a debate broke out about what they actually meant and what would actually change.” That discussion was too often absent from the first round of coverage of Obama’s speech.