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Michael Ratner and Paul Jay analyze President Obama’s defense of his drone and Guantanamo policies – a policy based on continuing US dominance in the Middle East; Obama’s speech was interrupted by Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

On Wednesday at Fort McNair in Washington, President Obama at the National Defense University delivered a policy speech on his drone policy and Guantanamo. His speech was interrupted. Here’s a little bit of what happened.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: We went–he went on to–we went on–.

MEDEA BENJAMIN, COFOUNDER, CODE PINK: [inaud.] Can you tell the Muslim people their lives are as precious as our lives? Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activities?

OBAMA: We’re addressing that, ma’am.

BENJAMIN: Can you apologize to the thousands of Muslims that you have killed? Will you compensate the innocent family victims? That would make us safer here at home. I love my country. I love the rule of law. Drones are making us less safe. And keeping people in indefinite detention at Guantanamo is making us less safe. Abide by the rule of law [inaud.]

OBAMA: The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to. Obviously, I do not agree with much of what she said. And obviously she wasn’t listening to me in much of what I said.


JAY: That was Medea Benjamin of Code Pink. President Obama suggested she needed to be heard, but it seemed to have flummoxed him a little bit as he went on with his speech.

Before the interruption, President Obama had started his speech giving an overall contextualization of why his drone policy is necessary. Here’s a bit of that.


OBAMA: Moreover, we have to recognize that these threats don’t arise in a vacuum. Most, though not all, of the terrorism we faced is fueled by a common ideology–a belief by some extremists that Islam is in conflict with the United States and the West, and that violence against Western targets, including civilians, is justified in pursuit of a larger cause.


JAY: President Obama does not suggest what that larger cause might be. Actually, he suggests it’s the American people that are threatened by these extremists. The America is on the defensive. But he doesn’t talk at all about what these quote-unquote extremists say why they’re doing all of this. And you may go back to bin Laden’s letter to the Americans before the 2004 elections, where he wrote fairly clearly what he thought. He said, and I’m quoting here: if you think we’re fighting the United States because we hate freedom, then why aren’t we attacking Sweden? And you have seen from bin Laden and other such people say it’s because of U.S. policy in the Middle East, it’s because the Americans seek hegemony in the Middle East.

And it may be that these extremists represent a vision of the Middle East that most Middle Easterners, most people who believe in Islam don’t want. It’s a radical Medieval vision that was probably best suited for the 14th or 15th centuries. But at least it does have something to do with resisting what the Americans are doing in trying to control the Middle East, which includes, for example, supporting dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain. President Obama in his speech mentioned supporting democracy in Libya and Tunisia and Egypt, but he doesn’t mention that the United States continues to pour billions of dollars into the Egyptian military, which is not very much in favor of promoting democracy.

In other words, if you’re going to contextualize all of this, you need to talk about the U.S. foreign policy and military policy throughout the region, you need to talk about oil, and you need to talk about all of the projection of U.S. power. Then you can talk about drones and Guantanamo and why the United States might consider itself under threat.

Now joining us to talk about President Obama’s speech and specifically digging into his drone policy and Guantanamo is Michael Ratner. Michael is the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He’s also a board member of The Real News.

Thanks for joining us, Michael.


JAY: So first of all–. Go ahead.

RATNER: I think what you said was really astute and important, because Obama’s speech really is about trying to end what he calls perpetual war. And then he says, no nation can retain freedom in the midst of continuous warfare. It’s a quote from one of the founding fathers of America.

But then he doesn’t really give any way in [incompr.] going to be able to end continuous warfare, ’cause he never addresses the very reasons you’re articulating as to why the U.S. is in continuous warfare. He doesn’t talk about the fact, as you said, that Osama bin Laden gave his reasons, and that apparently even the Boston–the people involved in the Boston bombing were very, very angry about Iraq. The Jordanian doctor who blew up a CIA base in Afghanistan–again, about Iraq. A lot of these people are saying the reasons they’re doing things, and it’s about U.S. hegemony, domination, control, oil, Iraq, Palestine [crosstalk]

JAY: Yeah, I was about to say that. Let me add Israel and Palestine, ’cause that should have probably been number one on my list, the one-sided support for apartheid and occupation policies of Israel. But go ahead, Michael.

RATNER: So I think that’s really crucial. And if Obama really wants or this country really wants to end perpetual war, it has to talk about what it’s doing in the Middle East, what it’s doing around the world. Why in his places that he wants to support democracy doesn’t he mention our chief oil provider, Saudi Arabia, which resembles not a democracy even whatsoever, but we’re not doing anything about Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain, where we have our Fifth Fleet? So all he’s talking about is some countries where we can maybe add some schools and some other things. But that isn’t going to stop the attacks on the United States or the anger at the United States and what it’s doing. So I think that is a huge missing piece of this Obama speech. And I’m really glad, Paul, that you put it into that context.

JAY: Well, further to that, President Obama did at least, you could say, step back an inch in the rhetoric from George Bush, who posited the war on terror as some struggle between good and evil which would clearly be an endless struggle. But here’s a little piece of what President Obama said.


OBAMA: … we must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror”, but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.


JAY: So you could say at least he’s suggesting that if you get rid of these specific persistent networks, then you have an end to this war.

RATNER: Well, he’s suggesting that, but it’s basically Whac-A-Mole. I mean, what you and I have just discussed is the fact that, yeah, you can wipe them out in one place, wipe them out in another place, but as long as U.S. policies around Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, oil continue, [incompr.] you’re going to keep getting people who believe the United States is not doing the right thing in the Middle East. It’s not really supporting democracy. It’s not really supporting equality. It’s draining their resources for our own use in the United States. So I think it’s self-defeating.

What he says is the answer–he obviously doesn’t want to address the issues you and I are–he says in the speech force alone is not enough, let’s look at what feeds extremism, we have to support democracy, we have to build schools, we have to, you know, support Israel, Palestine in some kind of agreement, etc. Well, you know, that’s–basically, in this context, it’s not that it’s meaningless, but it’s really meaningless in terms of the kinds of big issues and trying to put a stop to people who hate the United States. It’s meaningless in that context [crosstalk]

JAY: So he goes on to say, and given his starting point, as he’s not going to change anything about U.S. policy in the Middle East, so he starts with that assumption. From there he goes to, well, drones are absolutely necessary. And here’s why he says why they are.


OBAMA: But despite our strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists, sometimes this approach is foreclosed. . . . And it’s also not possible for America to simply deploy a team of Special Forces to capture every terrorist. . . . So it is in this context that the United States has taken lethal, targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones.


RATNER: You know, when he says that perpetual war is self-defeating, when he says he wants to find a way out of it, and then he goes and says two things–we’re going to leave troops in Afghanistan, even after 2014, ’cause they don’t want al-Qaeda coming back, and then he starts describing a drone program that doesn’t have an end. He thinks he’s going to have to do it forever. So we do have a perpetual war, and we have it for the reasons that you and I have been discussing, because as long as the U.S. controls and uses 25 percent of the resources [incompr.] 5 percent of the people and controls a lot more, we’re going to have a perpetual war with having to use drones.

And, you know, the drone policies–I think [incompr.] both on the drone policies he discusses and Guantanamo, we have to give ourselves a little bit of credit as activists or as protesters, and obviously [incompr.] hunger strikers in particular at Guantanamo, because the reason he’s giving this speech is because people are tired of the perpetual war, they’re tired of drones. A lot of people are being killed by drones that shouldn’t have been killed by drones. Guantanamo still is there. That forced him to really make this address.

Now, with drones you’re right. He’s going to have to continue that forever. Now, he didn’t say it in his speech, but if you read the newspapers, there are some guidelines that he did admit he signed yesterday about drones, but they seem to be more restrictive than what we’ve had before. If you look at drones, drones when they’re used in a war zone are difficult, but they’re not the same as using them in places where there’s no war zone, knocking off a guy you think might be dangerous in Yemen or Somalia or somewhere like that. That to me, you know, you can’t justify unless it’s a very, very strict standard that the U.S. is not adhering to.

So what he did was sign guidelines, apparently, that at least take away signature strikes, which are you don’t know the name of the person; you just think, this guy’s a militant, he’s sitting in a field with other militants, supposed militants, and he drones them. I think they’ll still do that, but they may not do it as much. So he’s trying to say–.

JAY: Michael, let me play a clip from Obama where he talks about the guidelines.


OBAMA: Beyond the Afghan theater, we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces. And even then, the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.

America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured–the highest standard we can set.


JAY: Michael, I mean, does this sound like any change or something that they’re–actually might execute on?

RATNER: I mean, there’s very little change here, very little. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of this in the white paper that was leaked a few weeks ago about what the standards were for killing people with drones. This is really a repeat of those standards. They’re not the legal standards. When you’re outside a war zone, it has to be imminent, concrete, and specific, the threat. There has to be no other way to stop it. It’s not a question of is it feasible to arrest them. The question is: is it possible to arrest them?

The U.S. in that white paper said, we’re broadening the concept of imminence. Imminence usually meant, you know, the person’s about to push the button and a rocket’s about to launch on our country. They’ve broadened that. It could be someone continually planning or something. So they’ve broadened it. We no longer have a concept of imminence. He didn’t add anything good in that speech about that concept at all. In fact, he reaffirmed the concept of killing people outside a war zone that we’re already familiar with. And it’s very sad.

One thing he said that was really to me the worst part of the drone thing almost: he said, you know, people object to our killing people with drones ’cause we kill civilians with drones sometimes. We try and avoid it, we try and make it almost no civilians, we check very carefully, etc., etc. And then he said something that was pretty shocking. He said, you know, the terrorists kill more civilians than we kill with our drones. Essentially, therefore, us killing some civilians and we kill a terrorist is okay, ’cause they’re killing more civilians.

Well, you know, the answer to that is very simple. It’s basic laws of war. Just because your opponent is violating the laws of war doesn’t mean you can violate the laws of war. And so I found that to be just a really outrageous statement about drones.

JAY: And it’s not even clear it’s even accurate. I mean, some of the investigative journalism into what’s been happening with the drone strikes have the numbers at hundreds and hundreds of civilians, perhaps over 1,000, I believe, maybe more. We don’t really know how many civilians have been killed in these drone strikes, so we don’t even know if what he says is true. But as you say, even if it is, it doesn’t change the issue.

RATNER: Yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s not true, because I think we have numbers of up to 1,000 civilians killed by these drone strikes.

The other thing he talked about was the Americans who were killed. But he didn’t talk about most–there’s four Americans that have now been admitted killed the first time. Anwar al-Awlaki. And because that’s, I guess, for the administration a, quote, easy case, even though he’s in Yemen, outside a war zone, they claim they have enough evidence against him that he was operational, as they say, and therefore they believe they had a right to kill him.

They never address–and that’s one of the things that–if it’s Medea who did it, who yelled out what happened to al-Awlaki’s son, the 16-year-old boy who was killed by a drone, and the administration admits he wasn’t targeted. So Medea yells that out, what happens to Rahman al-Awlaki, and no answer of course, ’cause there is no answer. He was killed by a drone when he’s having lunch or dinner or breakfast in a restaurant in Yemen. So he doesn’t answer, really, about the other Americans.

JAY: Well, he kind of acknowledges that this stuff happens in war, that–and he acknowledges he wasn’t targeted. He says, you know, bad things happen in war, we’re in a war, and we’re trying to mitigate it. And he also goes on to say that this is legal. And I wanted your take on this. Here’s where he says–tries to justify the legality of all of this.


OBAMA: Moreover, America’s actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. Within a week, Congress overwhelmingly authorized the use of force. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. . . . So this is a just war–a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.


JAY: So what do you make of that argument?

RATNER: Well, I never–two things. I never agreed that this was a war against al-Qaeda in the traditional sense to which the laws of war apply [incompr.] could use force in a–it’s a police action to stop al-Qaeda, bring them to trial, and, you know, try them and imprison them. So I never accepted the war paradigm at all.

Obviously there was a war in Afghanistan. That was a war. And there was Iraq War that was authorized separately. But as soon as you go outside of those zones–I never read the AUMF so broadly as to say you could attack anyone you wanted who they said was a threat to the United States.

They then put in these terms, well, they’re associated forces to al-Qaeda. Well, they make it up. You know, what’s an associated force to al-Qaeda? Anybody who stamps the label on their, you know, lapel, I’m an associated force of al-Qaeda? It doesn’t make any sense to me. Those people are alleged terrorists that are probably criminals if they’re convicted, but they’re–we’re not in a war with those people in any kind of traditional sense.

And therefore the whole argument that somehow it’s legal to drop drones on people all over the world under our law, maybe it’s legal. They can argue that if they want because of the way our courts interpret the law. But under international law it’s not legal at all. I mean, you can’t do that. You can’t just decide someone’s, you know, an associated force of somebody somewhere else and just, you know, drop [crosstalk]

JAY: You’ve got a situation where there’s groups that are associated, in theory, we’re told, with al-Qaeda, but they’re fighting against their own regimes or they’re not targeting the United States in any way.

RATNER: Paul, that’s a huge issue. That’s exactly right. And what the United States has been doing is going to support, you know, the governments it likes against its own internal domestic problems with what might be called in a different period or a different part of the world a civil war, you know, whatever people call these kind of internal conflicts.

JAY: President Obama stated his policy on the killing of U.S. citizens, both outside the United States and inside, who might be, according to the state, involved in warfare of some form against the U.S. Here’s what he said.


OBAMA: For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen–with a drone, or with a shotgun–without due process, nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.


JAY: Well, first of all, what was the due process in Yemen?

RATNER: They did address that over the years, and in our cases they have addressed that. You know, Holder gave a speech on it. We had argued in the al-Awlaki case, U.S. citizen, due process, take it to a court in the United States. That’s due process. Holder says due process doesn’t have to be a court decision. We believe we’ve given al-Awlaki essentially due process by putting it through our own oversight within the executive. Well, that’s due process on the president of the United States. I mean, that’s ridiculous. Due process [crosstalk] goes through a court in which there’s some litigation about deciding, is this a fair process for putting someone to death. That’s what death penalty’s all about.

JAY: Yeah. They seem to be defining a conversation between President Obama and Brennan is due process.

RATNER: That’s exactly right. That’s what–they already did that with Holder. They said that. So that’s a meaningless statement that you just read me, essentially [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. Now, the next part of what he said–here, I’ll play it again quickly.


OBAMA: … nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.


JAY: The word was they shouldn’t, you know, nor should they. It doesn’t mean by law they can’t.

RATNER: It doesn’t mean by law they can’t. And if you remember, the answer they gave to Rand Paul when he pushed on this issue and was filibustering and he wouldn’t stop, they finally said, we will not kill an American citizen on American soil who is not a combatant. So they actually hedged their bet. If you were part of, like, an enemy force on American soil, they would drone you. So there is that exception. And so that’s why I think he’s fudging the word should, because it doesn’t say he can’t or that he wouldn’t.

JAY: Okay. So here’s something that perhaps is positive. I guess we’ll have to see it. He says that he wants a media shield law. He seems to be inferring he doesn’t like what happened to AP when the Justice Department sees their phone records. Here’s a little clip of what he said.


OBAMA: … a free press is also essential for our democracy. That’s who we are. And I’m troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.

Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law. And that’s why I’ve called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach.


JAY: So what do you make of that?

RATNER: Well, you’re a journalist, Paul. You can hang it over your bed and look at it for the next 30 years, those words. You’re never going to see it. And if you see it, it’s going to be the weakest thing you ever saw. This is just words. This speech was filled with all kinds of what you would call little Christmas ornaments that are never actually going to be attached to the tree. And that’s one of them.

[crosstalk] what he’s done on press freedoms, apart from having James Risen now in the court of appeals in the Fourth Circuit in the Sterling case about whether he has to testify. You then have, of course, my client, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, on press freedom. And then, of course, you have the latest case, the Fox News reporter Rosen, who they actually got his records by claiming that a news reporter was a co-conspirator with his source. So he may be saying nice words that are going to sound, oh, yeah, and now we can hang them over our bed, but completely utterly meaningless. There’s an attack on free press in this country that is unprecedented.

JAY: Well, I’ll give you the most generous, I think, explanation or definition of what he’s saying you could have is that they will continue, for example, to seize records of journalists, but they won’t charge the journalist; they’ll charge the whistleblower. So the effect is maybe not to have such a massive chill against journalists, but they certainly want a massive chill against whistleblowers.

RATNER: Well, against whistleblowing it’s crazy how massive [incompr.] you and I have repeated, and others have as well, it’s double the number of prosecutions of whistleblowers than all other administrations put together, the stuff with WikiLeaks, the stuff with Rosen, as I said. There’s a massive assault on whistleblowers.

And Bradley Manning’s case is specifically terrible because he’s being charged with aiding the enemy, which is a death penalty charge that only soldiers can be charged with. And it’s as if he intentionally was trying to aid al-Qaeda, who read some WikiLeaks documents, which is completely absurd.

But if you’re a soldier, you think you’re ever going to take a chance of giving anything to the WikiLeaks or The New York Times or The Real News if you think you can get the death penalty when some guy who’s an enemy of the United States reads it? Forget it.

So that, what they’re doing with Manning, is really what should terrify journalists, because it should terrify them that any source they might have, particularly in the military, is just going to be dried up.

JAY: Okay. Let’s just quickly jump to Guantanamo. Here’s what President Obama said about Guantanamo. Here’s a few clips.


OBAMA: As president, I have tried to close GTMO. . . . And given my administration’s relentless pursuit of al-Qaeda’s leadership, there is no justification beyond politics for Congress to prevent us from closing a facility that should have never have been opened. . . . Today, I once again call on Congress to lift the restrictions on detainee transfers from GTMO. . . . I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen so we can review them on a case-by-case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [crosstalk] cleared already. Release them today.

OBAMA: Where appropriate, we will bring terrorists to justice in our courts and our military justice system. And we will insist that judicial review be available for every detainee. . . . Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike. I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack because it’s worth being passionate about. Is this who we are?


JAY: So, Michael, it seems some concession on the issue of Yemen. But what do you make of the rest of it?

RATNER: Let’s start with the end [incompr.] end of what you say, Paul. But is that who we are? Well, we’re force-feeding people, so who else are we except people who are force-feeding people who’ve been cleared for release at Guantanamo? So the answer to Obama is, yes, that’s who we are. We keep innocent people at Guantanamo. Eighty-six have been cleared for release, and we keep them there, and we’re force-feeding them. So the answer is, yes, that’s who we are.

The other thing that came out in Guantanamo–and I’ll go through a couple of specifics, though–is here’s what Obama said. Quote, I have tried to close Guantanamo. That’s probably the biggest lie of the entire speech, I have tried to close Guantanamo. Came into office over five years ago, five years ago about, four and a half years ago, and he promised to close Guantanamo. He then did everything to not close Guantanamo.

The reason we’re talking about this at all, as I said in the beginning, is because we have a hunger strike there, and when there was nothing left to be done, the people at Guantanamo took their lives in their own hands.

It is true that he did say, I am going to lift the restrictions on sending people to Yemen. That’s a big deal, because 80-some people are from Yemen. Fifty-five of those have been cleared for release to Yemen. So all that has to happen is he has to certify, as he’s required to do under this new law by Congress, and send them to Yemen.

But then he says, I’m going to do this on a case-by-case basis. They’ve already been cleared on a case-by-case basis. And so he’s going to go back through it.

So the proof will be in the pudding even on Yemen. Will he actually do it? How slowly will he do it? You know, what he should actually do is just do it and get it done and then move on to the next thing. So we’ll have to see, because this is probably the tenth speech he’s given on Guantanamo, certainly the third or fourth major one I’ve listened to, and we’re still sitting here at the Center for Constitutional Rights with all our clients in Guantanamo.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Michael.

RATNER: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.