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Kill or Capture, Torture & Detain Indefinitely: Partisan Disagreement on the ‘War on Terrorism’

The presidency of Barack Obama has entrenched many of the counterterrorism policies of President George W. Bush in the national security state and helped to further cement bipartisan consensus on these policies. However, there is one vile aspect about which conservatives and center-left individuals disagree, and that is on whether to outright kill terror suspects or not. But it’s not about the absence of due process. Republicans or conservatives contend intelligence is being lost and it would be better to capture, torture and hold terror suspects indefinitely.

This disagreement was highlighted on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC this morning, when Tom Junod appeared on the program to talk about his latest article for Esquire magazine, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama.” Appearing on the show to discuss Obama’s escalated use of drone executions or lethal force against “terrorists” with him were centrist Democratic hack Harold Ford Jr. and neoconservative pundit Dan Senor.

Here’s the exchange that brought this bipartisan agreement out into the open:

SENOR: I’m actually struck because the reaction to what Tom’s article talks about is muted in Congress among members of President Obama’s party. Imagine what would have been the case had he written the same article about President Bush and what the reaction would have been in Congress.

JUNOD: It’s muted in his party but it’s also muted in the other party. The Republican Party has been for this the whole time. Right now, really their only objection to it is Obama is leaking this sort of to make him more popular…

SENOR: …Or that as a stand-alone it’s not a national security strategy. You can’t just have a national security strategy about counterterrorism and drone attacks…

JUNOD: …Right, the Republicans I spoke to are pretty much all in favor of capture and interrogation and they contend that this has essentially replaced capture and interrogation.

FORD JR: What it also shows is Democrats were making this case about counterinsurgency for the last several years. This president is actually executing on it, which your article points out. But it also shows we can save money by not putting boots on the ground. And not only save money but we can save lives in the process of killing and capturing [inaudible]. I think the president has been—They’ve done some talking about this, but it’s equally surprising to me, to Dan’s point, that Republicans aren’t giving the president credit for these efforts. And I wonder your response—

SENOR: Because I think many Republicans feel—

FORD JR: Is it politics?

SENOR: —many Republicans feel if that if this is part of a more comprehensive approach to dealing with national security and terrorism that’s one thing. As a stand-alone policy, it’s not sufficient. It’s very hard to gather intelligence if you are not actually capturing human beings and interrogating them. If you are not capturing them and interrogating them and simply just killing them, you actually—That as a stand alone policy is not a strategy. [emphasis added]

Later in the segment, Ford Jr. unapologetically displays his fealty to Obama’s policy:

FORD JR: …I’m a firm believer in what he’s doing is right. If you give me the option of capturing or killing, I’d rather kill a terrorist. If we can stop that person, I think it’s a good thing…

For the past months, Senor’s rational but pernicious objection has been voiced by multiple neoconservative voices or national security hawks. Former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and torture advocate Jose Rodriguez said on “60 Minutes,” “How can it be more ethical to kill people than to capture them?” Bush administration lawyer and torture memo author Steven Bradbury said during a congressional hearing, “If the president says we can kill an American citizen in Yemen through the Executive Branch decision you’re an enemy combatant—I support that—why in the world couldn’t we hold them for intelligence gathering [indefinitely or for a number of days without Mirandizing them]?” A Wall Street Journal editorial made the twisted suggestion that the victims of drone attacks were actually  “missing detainees” because they cannot be rendered to Guantanamo, Bagram or some CIA black site to be waterboarded. And John Yoo, also a Bush administration lawyer and torture memo author, wrote, “Candidate Obama campaigned on narrowing presidential wartime power, closing Guantanamo Bay, trying terrorists in civilian courts, ending enhanced interrogation, and moving away from a wartime approach to terrorism toward a criminal-justice approach. Mr. Obama has avoided these vexing detention issues simply by depriving terrorists of all of their rights—by killing them.”

Democrats defend the Obama administration’s by saying what Ford Jr said. Drone executions save money and lives, particularly American lives. They argue huge casualties have not occurred. The government has only been using “precise” strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates. The US has not engaged in a bunch of “willy nilly” strikes. What has been ongoing is a “targeted effort” to get people on a list, who want to hit Americans and American facilities. They also present executions as better than trying to go after “suspects” with “more intrusive military actions.” The people we are killing are terrorists and, by virtue of the fact that the president’s administration has them designated as such, they deserve to be eliminated. These are the typical arguments that a Democrat repeats when confronted with criticism.

This is the only meaningful aspect of Obama’s drone policy that Ford Jr. and Senor disagree upon in the segment. In fact, Ford Jr. and Senor attempt to cast the president’s escalated use of drones as controversial amongst the two most prominent political parties in America, but, as Junod interjects, “It’s not controversial at all.” Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar Al-Awlaki, is a key example. No justification for killing him with a drone has been given by the Obama administration and yet his murder has not produced calls for an investigation in Congress.

Here is a key excerpt from Junod’s article:

You are a historic figure, Mr. President. You are not only the first African-American president; you are the first who has made use of your power to target and kill individuals identified as a threat to the United States throughout your entire term. You are the first president to make the killing of targeted individuals the focus of our military operations, of our intelligence, of our national-security strategy, and, some argue, of our foreign policy. You have authorized kill teams comprised of both soldiers from Special Forces and civilians from the CIA, and you have coordinated their efforts through the Departments of Justice and State. You have gradually withdrawn from the nation building required by “counterinsurgency” and poured resources into the covert operations that form the basis of “counter-terrorism.” More than any other president you have made the killing rather than the capture of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky, with drones, and on the ground, with “nighttime” raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden. You have killed individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are making provisions to expand the presence of American Special Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Pakistan and other places where the United States has not committed troops, you are estimated to have killed at least two thousand by drone. You have formalized what is known as “the program,” and at the height of its activity it was reported to be launching drone strikes in Pakistan every three days. Your lethality is expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting terrorism with a policy of preemptive execution, and claiming not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so in secret. The American people, for the most part, have no idea who has been killed, and why; the American people — and for that matter, most of their representatives in Congress — have no idea what crimes those killed in their name are supposed to have committed, and have been told that they are not entitled to know.

Junod powerfully communicates a stinging indictment of President Obama’s drone policy and use of lethal force yet at no time in the segment do Ford Jr. or Senor express any concerns over whether the drone program is legal. At no time do they show pause or trepidation over whether preemptive executions of terror suspects abroad are inhumane, immoral or possibly something that set a dangerous precedent by sending a message to other countries like China or Russia that it is permissible to engage in vigilantism by flying killer robots anywhere in the world away from the battlefield.

It is worth noting the origins of this depraved argument between Democrats and Republicans. The debate stems from Obama’s stated opposition in the beginning of his presidency to torture, indefinite detention, secret prisons and the Guantanamo Bay prison and his failure to close the prison. This failure has made it difficult for his administration to push back against the Republicans’ arguments in support of denying human rights and even humane treatment to “terrorists.” The expanded use of drones has been a means of escape from an array of quandaries and dilemmas the administration would face if it was still engaged in the capture, rendition and detention of terror suspects like the previous administration. Simply killing “terrorists” makes it possible for Obama and the Democrats to avoid reconciling the fact that they were unwilling to expend political capital to fight Republicans so Guantanamo prison would be shut down.
Neoconservatives are also jealous and feel like they have been unduly vilified. They find it unbelievable that President Obama has been able to normalize a policy of state-sanctioned murder when the rendition, torture and indefinite detention of “terrorists” by Bush was vociferously condemned by Democrats. They promote this argument against Obama’s drone policy not because they desire the reinstitution of the hallmark Bush policies of torture and detention but because they believe they might convince this president that he needs an array of tools at his disposal for going after “terrorists,” something this centrist pragmatist president might find reasonable.

Republicans already succeeded in backing him into a corner where he was unwilling to veto legislation that granted the military the power to indefinitely detain US citizens suspected of terrorism without charge. They managed to force him to back down on plans to try “terrorists” in civilian courts. They also forced him to tolerate constraints to his administration’s ability to resettle Guantanamo detainees so the prison could be shut down.

They have managed to contain how the administration repeals or abandons the use of Bush counterterrorism policies and deter him from discontinuing certain policy measures. If they push hard, the Republicans, especially the neoconservatives, know they can strong-arm him into a position where he approves more policies he expressed opposition to on the campaign trail in 2007 and 2008. They may even force him to express support for these policies while campaigning for re-election because they know how critical it is to his campaign that he maintain his current reputation as Warrior-in-Chief.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."