Former Bush Adviser: Drone Strikes Are 'Obama's Guantanamo'

Instead of detaining suspected terrorists, Obama just kills them, a former White House adviser says.


President Barack Obama embraces former President George W. Bush at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library April 25 at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

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Even if President Barack Obama succeeds in closing Guantanamo Bay, it doesn't mean the U.S. will be any closer to ending the war on terror. A former adviser to President George W. Bush suggested Wednesday that instead of locking up suspected terrorists, Obama has just been killing them with drones.

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"This administration has decided they don't want to do detention, because the Bush administration got into trouble with detention, so now they're just going to kill people," John Bellinger, said at an event discussing the legality of drone killings Wednesday. Bellinger was legal adviser to the Department of State from 2005 to 2009 and legal adviser to the White House's National Security Counsel from 2001 to 2005.

Obama made a lot of noise earlier this week when he repeated a campaign promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp amid a hunger strike that at least 100 detainees are participating in.

"I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo," he said at a news conference Tuesday. "I think it is critical for us to understand that Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed."

Bellinger suggested Wednesday that Obama is using the same criteria Bush used to detain potential terrorists when deciding whether to put them on a kill list. But the secrecy surrounding the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense's drone program makes it hard to say, according to Thomas Kean, former governor of New Jersey and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission.

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"We have to talk about how to engage enemies abroad," he said. "We've always done that in the past with some sort of legal framework." He said that, at least publicly, the U.S. appears to be making up the rules of engagement as it goes along.

Over the past decade, the United States has engaged in at least 300 drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Mali, taking out some high level al-Qaida operatives, but also killing somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Philip Zelikow, director of the 9/11 Commission and a former legal counselor to the U.S. Department of State, admitted Wednesday that there have been some cases of mistaken identity in drone attacks.

"We've had a lot of trial and error with this, and now we've had some seasoning in how to make judgments on [who is an enemy combatant]," he said. "We have made hundreds, possibly thousands of those judgments in Afghanistan and Iraq, without even talking about the other [countries]. Not all of those judgments are accurate."

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Bellinger said that while targeted killings aren't inherently bad or less desirable than detaining suspected terrorists, they are extremely unpopular in the countries where they're happening, losing popularity at home and seen as possibly illegal in much of the world.

Both Obama and Bush have had a hard time convincing the country's allies that the U.S. is still at war with al-Qaida

"The problem is no other country in the world has publicly agreed with the legality of our drone program. That's not a place the United States wants to be," he said. "There's a fundamental disagreement around the world about whether or not the U.S. is in a war at all. We are about the only country in the world that really thinks we are in an armed conflict with al-Qaida."

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, argued that the U.S. has expanded the definition of "enemy combatant" to be far too broad.

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"The reality is that the majority of the people being killed now are not senior level al-Qaida leaders, they are lower level insurgents who do not pose a threat to us," she said. "Whatever standard we are claiming to use today, we're going to have to accept it when other countries cite it back to us tomorrow [when other countries conduct drone strikes]."