Never in American history have four words so well summed up a president's ambivalent and convoluted stance on a major policy issue then last August, when President Obama, about to head off to Hawaii for summer vacation, told reporters: "We tortured some folks." In just those four words, Obama did somehow manage to convey more candor and more forgiveness than Dick Cheney or his nominal boss George W. Bush mustered in 14 wretched years after creating this nation's great moral failure of the 21st Century. But Obama's statement was also vague, informal -- perhaps inappropriately so -- and weary. The so-called leader of the free world seemed helpless to find a just detergent for the national stain of torture.
Today, Obama was back with a new announcement, and he might as well have said this:
We killed some folks.
We killed bad guys, with our flying death robots in some 7,000 miles away in Pakistan, We killed good guys, too. In essence, America dropped bombs on homes without much of a clue who was inside. Just as in August, President Obama struck the right tone -- remorseful, taking "full responsibility," and apologizing to the loved ones of American Warren Weinstein and Italy's Giovanni Lo Porto, the two innocent al-Qaeda hostages killed in a drone strike in January. He also revealed that two Americans working for al-Qaeda were killed during this attack and a subsequent drone assault a few days later.
"The United States is a democracy, committed to openness in good times and in bad," the president said. "It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur."
That's not good enough.
Let's state two things out front. First, the loss of Weinstein and Lo Porto is a sad blow for civilized society. The American Weinstein, a 73-year-old lifelong aid worker and former Peace Corps volunteer who spoke seven languages, devoted his life to helping others in harsh and difficult circumstances, and he paid the ultimate price. Second, the blame for his death -- and the death of Lo Porto -- belongs squarely with the al-Qaeda thugs who kidnapped them and deprived them of their freedom on what proved to be their last years in life.
But it's still essential, as citizens, to ask questions about the drone strike program. Hard questions. First of all, the White House acknowledged that it fired missiles at the residence in Pakistan where the two kidnapping victims were held with the understanding that the building was affiliated with al-Qaeda, but without knowledge of what human beings were inside. Think about that.
Indeed, the U.S. forces also claim they didn't realize that they were killing two American citizens fighting for al-Qaeda -- the English-language spokesman for the terrorist group, Adam Gadahn, and Ahmed Farouq -- with their missiles. In the bizarre, Kafkaesque world of the so-called "war on terror," that ignorance was bliss.
Why? Because if U.S. commanders -- including Obama, the commander-in-chief -- had known in advance that they were killing either American, it would have raised thorny, uncomfortable questions about the possibly unconstitutional, extra-judicial death penalty meted out to U.S. citizens without a trial. Instead, Washington insists that this was just your garden-variety use of flying death robots against folks overseas. So it's all good, right?
Or is it? Blowing up homes when you're not sure who's inside of them is a sure-fire recipe to kill innocent people as well as terrorism suspects. We learned this the hard way with the death of these two westerners -- but it happens all the time. One study, released last November, said that U.S. drone strikes aiming to kill just 41 terrorism suspects had resulted in the deaths of 1,147 people, including dozens of children.
Some of America's attacks in a half-dozen countries have been "signature strikes" against men whose names we didn't know, but who merely seemed to be "up to no good." It's worth noting, yet again, that these killings of civilians make America less safe -- their loved ones, and the friends of their loved ones, will hate the United States for the rest of their days -- but it's even more worth noting that killing innocent civilians is immoral and unforgivable. And not just Western aid workers.
Obama has promised the American people that he would make our drone program more transparent -- and this is yet another transparency promise that Obama has broken. As Greg Sargent over at the Washington Post noted after reporters spared with White House press secretary Josh Earnest about the details of the killings:
The exchange neatly captured a galling truth about the targeted killing program: There is still woefully insufficient transparency around it, both when it comes to the operations of the program itself and to its legal rationale. During the exchange, Earnest would not confirm that the operation was even a drone strike. And, according to Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union, even the legal rationale for the administration protocol that Earnest himself referred to by way of justifying the operation remains secret.
The time has long passed for Americans to learn what is being done in our names. And more importantly, the time has comes to acknowledge the many serious flaws in this program. It's a robot war being waged across a half-dozen countries and a couple of continents with dubious legal justification...if any. The killings haven't stopped the rise of new America-hating terrorist groups such as ISIS. They've created more terrorists than have been killed. And they've taken away any right for America to claim we are exceptional in the way we conduct our affairs.