A year after President Barack Obama announced a major new counterterrorism strategy to take the country beyond the threats that flowed directly from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, much of the agenda he outlined remains unfinished or not even begun.
In an ambitious address delivered a year ago Friday at the National Defense University, Obama said that the core of al-Qaida was “on the path to defeat” and that the upcoming end of the war in Afghanistan had brought America to a “crossroads.”
But many of the changes Obama outlined have proved easier said than done, including new rules governing the use of force abroad, increased public information on and congressional oversight of lethal attacks with drones, and efforts to move the CIA out of the killing business.
Some initiatives have become mired in internal debates, while others have taken a back seat to other pressing issues and perceived new terrorism dangers. Congress, while demanding faster change in some areas, has resisted movement in others.
In a Senate hearing Wednesday, irate lawmakers criticized senior administration officials over the lack of follow-up with one of the strategy’s principal goals: Obama had said he was looking forward to “engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal” the nearly 13-year-old congressional authorization to use force against those individuals, groups and nations responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Since then, “he has been silent and done nothing,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Pentagon general counsel Stephen Preston testified that progress awaited an agreement with the Afghanistan government on future U.S. deployments to train and advise Afghan forces. “A good deal of this is premised on finalization of what the circumstances, the mission and presence in Afghanistan will be,” Preston said.
Committee Democrats, if less sharp-edged, appeared equally frustrated by a lack of a substantive response on what ongoing counterterrorism authorities the administration wants and needs. “Just so you know, when you say you’re looking forward to engaging . . . it’s like, that’s why we’re here,” said Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Va. “That’s why we’re doing the hearing. We’re engaging.”
In the House on Wednesday, members debated a proposal by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the Intelligence Committee, to sunset the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force a year from now.
The future of the AUMF, which the administration has applied to al-Qaida, the Taliban, and “associated groups” in Yemen and Somalia, also has major implications for the legal authority to hold 154 detainees who remain at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and 38 held by U.S. forces at the Bagram base in Afghanistan.
Administration efforts to transfer all of them – to their homelands, third countries or U.S. civilian prisons – and to meet Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo remain hamstrung by congressional restrictions and are unlikely to be achieved by the end of the year. Senior administration officials said they anticipate a deluge of new lawsuits, particularly from Taliban detainees, once the administration declares the end of the Afghanistan war.
Last year’s speech was the public expression of a policy guidance document signed by the president. While violent extremists remained a reality, Obama said, the threats to this country were more akin to those it faced before the 9/11 attacks, and there was no need for the United States to be on a “perpetual wartime footing.”
Asked to describe actions taken and progress made on the policy over the past 12 months, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a lengthy written response that the administration had “worked to implement the President’s direction.”
In June, Hayden said, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser Lisa Monaco “will give a speech updating the American people on these efforts in greater detail.”
Among the provisions of the policy guidance document were new restrictions on the use of drone-fired missiles to kill alleged terrorists. Obama said new guidance allowed targeting only those terrorists posing “a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” which administration officials said meant only individuals planning attacks on the U.S. homeland or against U.S. persons abroad. The president, officials said, overruled some national security advisers who proposed continuing the broader standard of threats to “U.S. interests.”
At the same time, Obama said that “there must be a near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
Officials said at the time that they expected the number of future drone attacks to drop significantly from past totals. In some respects, that has been the case, according to tallies assembled by independent organizations.
According to the Long War Journal, drone strikes in Pakistan fell from 46 in 2012 to 28 in 2013, although the number of civilian casualties rose from four to 14. No U.S. drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan during 2014, although it is unclear to what extent this is a result of the new guidelines or of a separate agreement with the new Pakistan government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to stop attacks against all Pakistan groups except the highest-value al-Qaida targets – none of whom have been located.
Outside of the Afghanistan war theater, which includes Pakistan, drone strikes in Yemen decreased from 41 in 2012 to 26 in 2013. There have been 12 attacks in 2014.
Civilian deaths in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, have fell from 35 in 2012 to 17 in 2013 and to six this year. The U.S. military has also launched sporadic air attacks against alleged al-Qaida-associated targets in Somalia, most recently in January.
But it is impossible to determine the extent to which the numbers are the result of the new guidelines – the administration has never publicly acknowledged a specific drone strike or released information about any inadvertent civilian deaths.
While drone strikes are reported after the fact to selected congressional committees, Obama said in his speech that he had “asked my administration to review proposals to extend oversight of such operations.” Noting proposals to establish a special court or independent oversight board to review lethal action, he said, “I look forward to actively engaging Congress to explore these and other options for increased oversight.” The oversight regime remains unchanged.
Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee dropped a measure that was in the intelligence budget demanding annual tallies of militant and civilian drone deaths, after Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. wrote that such information would harm national security by revealing intelligence “sources and methods.”
As part of continuing congressional efforts to pry more information out of the administration, the House version of next year’s defense budget threatens to withhold 25 percent of the military’s Special Operations budget unless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel complies within 90 days with a measure – ignored by the Pentagon in last year’s budget – demanding he provide detailed information on the process for selecting and approving drone targets.
Although it was not mentioned in Obama’s speech, senior administration officials explaining the new policy last year said it included what one described as “an expressed preference” for the CIA – which conducts all drone attacks in Pakistan and some in Yemen – to turn over lethal operations to the Pentagon. Restricting drones strikes to the military, officials said, would allow the CIA to return to its more “traditional” intelligence-gathering role. Moreover, they said, since all such CIA actions are considered secret, giving the military the lead for all use of force would increase the transparency the president sought.
But a December military drone strike in Yemen that allegedly killed up to a dozen civilians on their way to a wedding has put a halt to any progress toward ending CIA operation of armed drones. Even as the military and the intelligence agency have argued their prerogatives internally, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., heads of the Senate and House intelligence committees, have resisted removing lethal authority from the CIA.
Rogers, in the House, has publicly criticized the new restrictions on drone targets as “an utter and complete failure” that “leave Americans’ lives at risk.”
Administration officials have not commented on Rogers’ charges. But Hayden, the NSC spokeswoman, said that officials were “currently exploring ways we can provide more information” about the use of force.
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Washington Post staffers Adam Goldman and Julie Tate contributed to this report.