Amos Guiora knows
all about the pitfalls of targeted assassinations, both in terms of legal
process and the risk of killing the wrong people or causing civilian casualties.
Yet Guiora – no dove on such matters – confessed he was "deeply
concerned" about President Barack Obama's own "kill list" of terrorists and the
way they are eliminated by missiles fired from robot drones around the world. He
Indeed, newspaper revelations last week about the "kill list" showed the Obama administration defines a militant as any military-age male in the strike zone when its drone attacks. That has raised the hackles of many who saw Obama as somehow more sophisticated on terrorism issues than his predecessor, George W Bush. But Guiora does not view it that way. He sees Obama the same as Bush, just much more enthusiastic when it comes to waging drone war. "If Bush did what Obama has been doing, then journalists would have been all over it," he said.
But the "kill list" and rapidly expanded drone program are just two of many aspects of Obama's national security policy that seem at odds with the expectations of many supporters in 2008. Having come to office on a powerful message of breaking with Bush, Obama has in fact built on his predecessor's national security tactics.
Obama has presided
over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the
National Security Agency. He has launched a ferocious and unprecedented
crackdown on whistleblowers. He has made more government documents classified
than any previous president. He has broken his promise to close down the
The sheer scope and
breadth of Obama's national security policy has stunned even fervent Bush
supporters and members of the
pertinently, Aaron David Miller, a long-term
Many disillusioned supporters would agree. Jesselyn Radack was a justice department ethics adviser under Bush who became a whistleblower over violations of the legal rights of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. Now Radack works for the Government Accountability Project, defending fellow whistleblowers. She campaigned for Obama, donated money and voted for him. Now she has watched his administration – which promised transparency and whistleblower protection – crack down on national security whistleblowers.
It has used the Espionage Act – an obscure first world war anti-spy law – six times. That is more such uses in three years than all previous presidents combined. Cases include John Kiriakou, a CIA agent who leaked details of waterboarding, and Thomas Drake, who revealed the inflated costs of an NSA data collection project that had been contracted out. "We did not see this coming. Obama has led the most brutal crackdown on whistleblowers ever," Radack said.
Yet the development fits in with a growing level of secrecy in government under Obama. Last week a report by the Information Security Oversight Office revealed 2011 had seen U.S. officials create more than 92m classified documents: the most ever and 16m more than the year before. Officials insist much of the growth is due to simple administrative procedure, but anti-secrecy activists are not convinced. Some estimates put the number of documents wrongly classified as secret at 90%.
"We are seeing the reversal of the proper flow of information between the government and the governed. It is probably the fundamental civil liberties issue of our time," said Elizabeth Goitein, a national security expert at the Brennan Centre for Justice. "The national security establishment is getting bigger and bigger."
example of this lies high in the mountain deserts of
Yet the UDC is just the most obvious sign of how the operations and scope of the NSA has grown since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under Bush, a key part was a secret "warrantless wiretapping" program that was scrapped when it was exposed. However, in 2008 Congress passed a bill that effectively allowed the program to continue by simply legalizing key components. Under Obama, that work has intensified and earlier this year a Senate intelligence committee extended the law until 2017, which would make it last until the end of any Obama second term.
"Obama did not reverse what Bush did, he went beyond it. Obama is just able to wrap it up in a better looking package. He is more liberal, more eloquent. He does not look like a cowboy," said James Bamford, journalist and author of numerous books about the NSA including 2008's The Shadow Factory.
That might explain
the lack of media coverage of Obama's planned changes to a military funding law
called the National Defense Authorization Act. A clause was added to the NDAA
that had such a vague definition of support of terrorism that journalists and
political activists went to court claiming it threatened them with indefinite
detention for things like interviewing members of Hamas or WikiLeaks. Few
expected the group to win, but when lawyers for Obama refused to definitively
rebut their claims, a
That hard line
should perhaps surprise only the naive. "He's expanded the secrecy regime in
general," said Radack. Yet it is the drone program and "kill list" that have
emerged as most central to Obama's hard-line national security policy. In
January 2009, when Obama came to
power, the drone program existed only for
are common. Obama's first strike in
The drone operation
now operates out of two main bases in the
Yet for some, politics seems moot. Obama has shown himself to be a ruthless projector of national security powers at home and abroad, but the alternative in the coming election is Republican Mitt Romney.
"Whoever gets elected, whether it's Obama or Romney, they are going to continue this very dangerous path," said Radack. "It creates a constitutional crisis for our country. A crisis of who we are as Americans. You can't be a free society when all this happens in secret."