Obama aims to reduce US drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay

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President Obama on Thursday outlined a broad overhaul of some of the most secretive and controversial US counter-terrorism policies, from drone strokes to the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, but many details remained murky, even as he warned the path to an exit from a war posture against al Qaeda and its affiliates will not be quick or without continued hard choices.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University Thursday. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

The speech follows a year-long policy review to try to institutionalize and codify the “rules of the road” for some of the most sensitive US counter-terrorism programs, that was led by then White House counter-terroism advisor, now CIA Director John Brennan, Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reported.Several of these have come to a critical head in the past few weeks, with the hunger strike of 105 of the 166 prisoners at the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, and the revelation last week that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records of more than 20 Associated Press journalists as part of a leak probe into the source for an AP story on a classified intelligence operation in Yemen.

“All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends,” Obama said Thursday. Continue reading

Yemeni’s testimony on US drones strikes chord in Washington


Last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a US educated Yemeni youth activist and writer, wrote about what it was like to have his village attacked by US drones, on his Twitter account @almuslimi and at Al-Monitor.

Today, after al-Muslimi’s powerful testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday about the experience, the White House invited al-Muslimi to talk with them too, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports:

Before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. […]

Still, it’s a dramatic change from the last time al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy, came to Washington. In September…al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another…while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones.

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, al-Muslimi warmed up the room by saying he’d spent some of the happiest years of his life attending high school as an exchange student in California, and considered himself upon his return as a kind of US “ambassador” to Yemen. So our ambassador was upset and horrified, he said, when, sitting at a dinner with American diplomat friends in the capital Sanaa last week April 15th, he started getting calls and texts from people in his remote village of Wessab, a nine-hour drive away. A missile from a US drone had killed a man who village residents told him they had no idea would be a US target, and who could have been easily arrested without endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.

“Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village,” al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights Tuesday.

“For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States,” al-Muslimi explained. “They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: ‘Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?'”

America’s policy of remote, targeted killings is causing psychological terror and anger that is turning people in his village and country against the United Sates, our ambassador to Wessab warned.

The Obama White House did not send an official to testify on the panel, which was chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. However, another witness who had been active in the Obama administration’s first term national security debates, former Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, did attend, and went to shake al-Muslimi’s hand at the conclusion of the hearing, Ackerman reported.

And in the wake of his testimony, al-Muslimi is being sought by the US media for interviews, following stories on his testimony in the New York Times, Wired, etc. (Apparently deluged with the requests, al-Muslimi on Wednesday tweeted out the email address of a US media handler.) He’ll appear on NBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night.

“The US needs to hear someone who looks like him and sounds like him and has his background say what he is saying,” Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But I am not terribly optimistic that it will make much difference,” Johnsen added. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Why is al-Muslimi’s reception in Washington this time so much more resonant than the gloomy trip he described to Ackerman last fall?

It’s hard to know. Certainly Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster put the issue of the White House’s secretive drone policy on a wider public radar. Perhaps at some level too, some here may be wearily mulling, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon (on the same day as the drone strike in al-Muslimi’s village), the perplexing identity of the suspects in the senseless terrorist attack–two brothers of Chechen descent who had been in the US for a decade. For whatever reason, at the moment anyhow, Washington seems newly ready to at least listen to what an articulate, ostensibly US-friendly person on the other geographical end of US drone strikes has to say, and to ponder whether they are the high-tech, low-hassle solution for counterterrorism without boots on the ground, or contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of terrorists we may yet face. Ambassador al-Muslimi seems to have nudged the debate, if only he could offer the White House a better alternative.

Obama to name John Brennan for CIA, Chuck Hagel for Defense


President Obama on Monday will nominate White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan to head the CIA, and former Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense.

Brennan, a 25 year CIA veteran who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has served as Obama’s top terrorism and intelligence advisor going back to the 2008 campaign.  He is very close with the President and extremely well-liked by the White House and National Security Council staff.

“When I was in [the White House], I slept better at night knowing that John Brennan never did,” former Obama White House political advisor David Axelrod wrote on Twitter Monday. “He worked 24/7 to keep Americans safe. Extraordinary guy.”

Brennan however withdrew his name from consideration for CIA chief in 2008 amid concerns about whether he had endorsed Bush-era CIA use of waterboarding and other controversial harsh interrogation techniques. More recently, Brennan has reportedly been among the figures arguing inside the administration for more restraint in the use of targeted drone strikes to kill militants.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran who served two terms as Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been co-chairman of Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The nominations are expected to be announced at 1pm EDT.

The administration is gearing up for a tough confirmation battle over Hagel.

Neoconservatives and some right-leaning pro-Israel and gay rights groups have already signaled their opposition to Hagel, while several former diplomats, military officers, and Israel envoys have endorsed him. Among Hagel’s supporters, former National Security advisors Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Israel Tom Pickering, former Defense Secretary  Frank Carlucci, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.

The administration may have been taking aback by the early opposition to the Hagel nomination, given his distinguished record of service and compelling personal story.  The White House also may have thought the worst was behind it after Obama’s first choice for Secretary of State, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, bowed out amid Republican sniping over her comments on the Benghazi attacks. Obama last month nominated Sen. John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.

Regarding the preemptive campaign against Hagel, it has been “like picking up a rock and discovering all the nasties underneath,” one Democratic source said. The Obama administration “may not have wanted to have a fight at the outset, but I think at least some want to have this fight now to shine a light on some really awful, blackmail-style politics. They are sick of these groups boxing them in and want a public fight to expose them and hopefully put them in their place.”

“If they win, it may expand space for actual ‘moderate’ voices,” the source continued. “The stakes are really high — so they better go all in and win.”

Hagel’s positions on national security policy are considered similar to those of President Obama, who defended him as a “patriot” in an interview last month.

“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel,” Obama told NBC’s David Gregory last month. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel’s military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel’s security issues and predicaments.”

“Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative,” Abe Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly said Monday.

(Photo: White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan briefs President Obama on Dec. 14, 2012 on the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The President later said this was the worst day of his Presidency. Pete Souza, White House.)

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Roundup: Chuck Hagel and his enemies

In shift, Obama’s National Security Council staff step up public case for president’s policies

Exercising the White House prerogative to operate mostly in the dark, President Obama’s National Security Council staff have tended to be seldom heard and seen; but in recent weeks, that’s changed, and the Obama national security staff (NSS) have been making the rounds.

Recent appearances include: top White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan discussing drone strikes at the Wilson Center Monday, top NSS Europe hand Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall talking the upcoming NATO summit at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); a trio of NSC aides led by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the Chicago Council on World Affairs on the summit last week; White House WMD czar Gary Samore talked Iran and North Korea nukes to a Hill audience last week; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough is due to address a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference Sunday. And somewhat unusually, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s travel to Moscow was announced in advance by NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor Wednesday rather than after he got back, as has mostly been the pattern previously.

It’s not clear what exactly accounts for these new and welcome stirrings of openness from the White House–the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden? the US presidential campaign?

Brennan, for his part, told the Woodrow Wilson Center Monday that Obama himself had instructed his aides to be more open about U.S. counter-terrorism policies, including the previously universally known, but not officially acknowledged, U.S. use of drone strikes.

“President Obama believes that—done carefully, deliberately and responsibly—we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security,” Brennan said, continuing:

So let me say it as simply as I can.  Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.  And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.

Whatever accounts for the NSC’s new spirit of glasnost, however, it has apparently come at a cost. Namely, putting the NSC’s usually low-profile top dog Tom Donilon in the cross-hairs of the parody newspaper the Onion, which cites “White House sources” Thursday to report that Donilon has apparently been feeling a bit left out:

According to White House sources, President Obama gently urged his staff Monday to try to include national security adviser Thomas Donilon a little more in the operation of the U.S. government’s executive branch, having observed the senior aide is still struggling to fit in. … Continue reading