A Critique Of The New York Times “Secret Kill List” Article

President Barack Obama meets with U.S. intelligence community officials in the Cabinet Room of the White House, April 17, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The long and detailed New York Times piece entitled “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” is causing a lot of stir on the left and the right.

As I was reading it, I didn’t have a hard time imaging what the reaction from some on the left would be. The person that always comes to mind is Glenn Greenwald, whose sentences almost always include “a noun, a verb and drones”.

As a liberal, I have a lot of problems with our country’s use of force, whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration. I do, however, trust Democrats much more than Republicans when it comes to executing our foreign policy. And yes, I wish that Democrats were less militaristic, and I let them know that whenever I get a chance. I fill out their surveys and I write letters to Democratic leaders telling them so. I also protest new military actions when it looks like we are heading towards a war. But I’m still going to vote for Democrats, because I really don’t want Teapublicans getting their hands on our vast, powerful military again. We’re still cleaning up the mess left by the last group of Republican bullies.

In my advancing years, I’ve come to realize that all presidents are tasked with the thankless job of protecting America from those who want to do us harm. It’s incredibly easy for us keyboard warriors to opine about what the government should do, but we aren’t reading those daily briefings and aren’t privy to the intelligence that career officers are gathering. Because of that, I no longer have a knee-jerk reaction to all the actions our government takes when it comes to military action.

Can You Keep A Secret?

The title of the piece in the New York Times points to the first issue I will discuss in this post, the idea that the “kill list” is “secret”. Of course it’s secret, it’s based on sensitive intelligence that any person who is intellectually honest, knows hasto remain secret. If a person is so mired in ideology that they don’t appreciate the role of keeping sensitive intelligence secret, well then the conversation

is pretty much over at that point. I’m amazed at how many people think our foreign policy and intelligence should be an open book, as if our enemies reading it is no big deal. Often, it seems like some people don’t think we have enemies or they appear to be siding with our enemies by defending them.

The “secret kill list” to which the NYT piece refers is the list of terrorists that our intelligence services have deemed large enough threats to our nation, that they should be captured or killed when found. When President Bush created his morbid deck of cards with terrorists on them, I became sick to my stomach upon hearing it. It is one thing to keep a list of people, (the FBI has its top ten list) but it is quite another thing to put them on “playing” cards, which in my mind trivializes their importance and turns the very serious business of national security into a fun game for the masses. People actually started collecting them as I recall. That’s fucking sick.

Whereas the media had fun with that deck of cards, they now want to get serious and call it a “secret kill list” and I imagine they hear scary music when they write about it. The word “secret” is meant to trigger a specific response in some readers.

The Buck Stops With President Obama

Unlike his predecessor, President Obama takes responsibility for his decisions. From the NYT article:

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be. […]

“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”

So whether you agree with President Obama’s position or not, the man deserves credit for standing up and taking responsibility for what our military does when targeting terrorists and the potential collateral damage that our strikes may cause. I’m glad that the person we elected is making the call instead of some career military person who hasn’t gone through the grueling process of winning the presidency, during which candidates are put under the microscope and damn near every move they have ever made is analyzed. Would you rather John “bomb, bomb Iran” McCain was making that call? I didn’t think so.

I know that the people suffering from Obama Derangement Syndrome (ODS) will find little comfort in the above, but really, do they ever feel comfort? That group seems to be able to find the black cloud in every silver lining.

Ignoring Congress Is So Convenient When Slanting A Piece Of Journalism

You may notice when reading the NYT piece that the authors slip in some memes that many on the Professional Left have nurtured and embraced. From the title of the piece, to the many memes sprinkled throughout, the authors knew exactly what buttons to push.

They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. […]

When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”

In one sentence, the authors imply that POTUS is responsible for Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) still being open, which is one of the flagship memes of the PL and it isn’t true. Go read my post on it if you missed that whole mess when it happened. They go on to imply that the President has no moral reservations about “lethal action”. It’s one of those sentences meant to be plucked out by the likes of Greenwald and Scahill. Nevermind that the authors also go into detail about how seriously President Obama takes this task much later in the piece, after the ODS sufferers heads have already exploded. Here is the nuance surrounding the “American cleric in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki. (emphasis mine)

The president “was very interested in obviously trying to understand how a guy like Awlaki developed,” said General Jones. The cleric’s fiery sermons had helped inspire a dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood. Then he had gone “operational,” plotting with Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the airliner was over the United States.

That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.

Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.

If the president had qualms about this momentous step, aides said he did not share them. Mr. Obama focused instead on the weight of the evidence showing that the cleric had joined the enemy and was plotting more terrorist attacks.

“This is an easy one,” Mr. Daley recalled him saying, though the president warned that in future cases, the evidence might well not be so clear

As you can see, the details of Awlaki’s case paint a picture of someone who had gone “operational” and was doing more than just talking. When the President said “[T]his is an easy one,” according to Daley, and then went on to say that in future cases, the evidence might not be so clear, the President was showing that this case was special. Smartypants has an excellent post that delves further into the details about what Awlaki was up to and the direct threat he posed to American citizens.

Let the Awlaki case be a warning to Americans, if you renounce your citizenship, move to Yemen, go on Youtube and call for violence against Americans and plot terrorist attacks against the U.S. — you might get visited by a drone. We have freedoms in America, but the freedom to plot and encourage terrorism isn’t one of them, from what I’ve read. And wrapping yourself in the “Freedom of Speech” argument makes no sense, we already have limits to that freedom, yelling fire in a crowd is the one everyone always cites. Something makes me think that encouraging and plotting terrorist attacks against Americans might be one of those exceptions.

The authors later in the article return to the Guantanamo Bay issue by first brushing past the real reason it didn’t get closed, lock-step opposition from Republicans and way too many Democrats. They moved right to the blame Obama game.

But it was too late, and his defensive tone suggested that Mr. Obama knew it. Though President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate, had supported closing the Guantánamo prison, Republicans in Congress had reversed course and discovered they could use the issue to portray Mr. Obama as soft on terrorism.

Admittedly, the first couple of years of President Obama’s term were a learning curve. He learned that Republicans would abandon bills they once supported, and in some cases even sponsored, in order to not give the new guy any wins. With both the former Republican president and the 2008 Republican candidate supporting closing Gitmo, President Obama naively assumed it would happen. The unprecedented opposition from Republicans turned all politics in Washington on its head. Many people who were working off conventional wisdom and the word of Senators and members of Congress got burned in the first couple years, it wasn’t just the President and his people.

Recently, it was revealed that Republicans devised a plan on the day President Obama was sworn in to thwart any progress in the next 4 years.

Democrats have rounded on revelations about a private dinner of House Republicans on inauguration day in 2009 in which they plotted a campaign of obstruction against newly installed president Barack Obama.

During a lengthy discussion, the senior GOP members worked out a plan to repeatedly block Obama over the coming four years to try to ensure he would not be re-elected.

Do you remember the dire straights that our economy was in at the time. This event alone is enough to run every Republican out of town in 2012.

Using Former Bushies When It’s Convenient For Furthering The Meme

This next passage is very revealing of the techniques used throughout the piece to appeal to the “both sides are the same” crowd. It details the concern that President Obama has for innocent people.

Just days after taking office, the president got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.

In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.

Do you see how that works? President Obama clearly wants to minimize and ideally eliminate innocent civilians being harmed by the pinpoint strikes and made major changes to accomplish that. Yet the authors very quickly pivot to a quote from a former Bush administration official, Gen. Michael Hayden (retired), who although better than his predecessor, was still working for a corrupt administration that led us into war on false pretenses. I actually do have some respect for Hayden for turning away from Cheney and his gang when he took over as Director of the CIA in 2006; my problem here is that the authors use Hayden’s quote to diminish the actions President Obama took to further minimize civilian casualties.

What The Hell, Let’s Throw In The “Caved” Meme Too

When they return to the Guantanamo Bay issue later in the piece, the authors push another meme of the Professional Left, the “OMG, he caved” meme. I’ll send you to my piece on Guantanamo Bay again, in case you didn’t click the first time. It shows the circumstances that the newly elected president faced from both the right and his own party in trying to close Gitmo.

No amount of waving his magic wand by President Obama was going to get these spineless politicians to let those scary terrorists be transferred to their states. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was one of the people leading the charge against transferring Gitmo prisoners to his state along with many other Democrats. That put the Republicans in the drivers seat and created the odd coalition of former VP Cheney and Sen. Schumer. What’s wrong with that picture? Forget the fact that our maximum security prisons house some of the worst and most violent criminals the world has seen. These terrorists are, cue the scary music, “muslims”…dunt duh duh.

Here is one illustration of the “caved” meme that was sprinkled in the NYT piece.

When the administration floated a plan to transfer from Guantánamo to Northern Virginia two Uyghurs, members of a largely Muslim ethnic minority from China who are considered no threat to the United States, Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf denounced the idea. The administration backed down.

That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same administration official said. “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”

The characterization of the Uyghur incident ignored a hell of a lot that transpired during that time. It wasn’t just a matter of ” Virginia Republicans led by Representative Frank R. Wolf ” who started jumping up and down about transferring those two prisoners. An assault began on the President and his attempt to dismantle Bush’s hideous practices. Once again, Republicans who once supported the release of the Uyghurs turned on the President, not wanting him to get any “win”.

The Uyghur’s high-profile champion in Congress, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, wrote Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June of 2008 requesting that the 17 Uyghur detainees be released from Guantanamo into parole into the US.

Rohrabacher also called on the US government to provide an apology and perhaps compensation for any abuse the detainees had endured.

The Uyghurs – and the Republicans’ principled position on the issue – fell victim to the conviction of top Republicans that it was of vital importance that the Obama administration suffer a conspicuous setback on an issue that the GOP still sees as political gold: terrorism.

In a recent newspaper column, Newt Gingrich, a key Republican strategist, burned the Republicans’ bridges to the Uyghur cause with an inflammatory and misleading attack on the 17 Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo.

It didn’t take me five minutes on Google to find the above reality of what happened with the case of the Uyghers; you would think a couple of New York Times writers would know how to use Google and find it themselves. But, of course, that wouldn’t fit with their “OMG, he caved” meme.

As my fellow blogger Rkref pointed out to me, Lyndon Johnson had a Senate with 68 Democrats and a huge wind at his back after the assassination of President Kennedy. The country pulled together and Johnson took advantage of it.

The idea that every time a president reaches a compromise or doesn’t succeed in achieving a goal is “caving” is just juvenile. Whenever I have an exchange with one the “cave dwellers” on Twitter, that immaturity is usually revealed pretty quickly. Context has no place in their minds, everything is black and white, for or against, with us or against us, he said, she said…pick your metaphor.

The Reality Of The Violent World We Live In

As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, I have a lot of problems with our government’s use of military force. I’ve always thought that violence begets violence. If you look at the long-standing conflicts in the world, many of them go back centuries and a revenge mentality gets passed from generation to generation. I’ve always tried to be a positive person and in my younger years — I’m 50 now — I was much more idealistic about what could be accomplished in our society. But over the years, I’ve witnessed a culture that keeps embracing and glorifying violence. Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life that doesn’t appear to be changing.

I can only imagine what it must be like for President Obama, or any president, to receive the daily and weekly briefings about threats to our nation. Having read both of President Obama’s books and watched and read almost all his speeches, debates and interviews, I am damn glad that he is the leader of our country. I know that he cares about people and wants all Americans to be safe and have opportunities to live happy, productive lives. He has done an amazing job of representing all Americans as president, much to the dismay of partisans on the left. As one of those people on the left, I accept it. And even though it sometimes means I don’t get exactly what I want, I’m happy that I have a president that is looking out for the safety of all Americans.

Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles

Official White House photos by Pete Souza

Anwar al-Awlaki photo by Muhammad ud-Deen, Wikimedia Commons