Given the reaction from congressional Democrats, one might think that the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was the first time they had heard of a targeted killing by drone. Within hours of the strike, Democratic leaders were accusing President Trump of trying to create a diversion away from his upcoming impeachment trial.
What Democrats seem to have forgotten is that, when it came to death from above, President Barack Obama was the ultimate triggerman. He created the authority, process and national security clampdown that made the Soleimani killing possible.
In July 2016 an article headlined “How Obama Went From Reluctant Warrior To Drone Champion,” The Washington Post described two aspects of President Barack Obama, often in conflict with one another, that defined how future presidents would use drones to kill America’s enemies.
“There’s the president who has anguished, often publicly, over the morality of killing and the costs of combat,” the article states. “Then there’s the president who, over the past seven years, has sanctioned the largest targeted killing campaign in American history.”
Obama supporters expected the former liberal constitutional law professor, who voted against the war in Iraq, would be a radical departure from his predecessor George W. Bush. They were stunned by what a hawk Obama turned out to be.
Obama was so convinced that drone strikes could often coopt the need to deploy American troops that he commissioned studies, published reports and used executive orders to ensure that his drone warfare program would continue after he left office.
During his presidency, Bush ordered 57 drone strikes. The 542 drone strikes Obama authorized — nearly 10 times more than Bush — killed an estimated 3,797 people, including 324 civilians.
In 2011, Obama reportedly told senior aides: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
But memories in Washington are notoriously short where politics are involved. The obsession over whether the word “imminent” proceeded the word “threat” never seemed to be a problem among Democrats when Barack Obama had a terrorist in his crosshair. There was no emergency effort in Congress to curtail his military authority. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Democrats in Congress were cheering him on.
Obama launched more than 500 drone strikes without approval from Congress. In fact, he tried to grab broad new powers on what defined a terrorist, or a terrorist supporter, and what could be done with them, often without recourse to legal process. Obama kept a personal “kill list” on his desk from which he personally selected targets to eliminate and considered any military-age male in the strike zone to be a legitimate target — not a civilian casualty.
Liberals who viewed Obama as much more sophisticated than George W. Bush were stunned by the lack of nuance in his kill policy.
“That is an amazing standard that shares an ugly synergy with the sort of broad-swath logic that we see employed in Stop and Frisk, with NYPD national spy network, with the killer of Trayvon Martin,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in the ultra-liberal magazine The Atlantic. Washington insiders, The Guardian reported, were calling Obama “Bush on steroids.”
Amos Guiora knows all about the pitfalls of targeted drone assassinations, both in terms of legal process and the risk of killing the wrong people or causing civilian casualties. The University of Utah law professor spent many years in the Israeli Defense Forces, including time as a legal adviser in the Gaza Strip where drone strikes are common.
Guiora is no dove. Yet he was “deeply concerned” about Obama’s kill list and how freely Obama was using drone strikes. He called the process to compile the list was “loosey goosey,” leaving the strikes open to legal and moral problems when the order to kill left his desk.
“He [made] decisions largely devoid of external review,” Guiroa told the Observer. “If Bush did what Obama had been doing, then journalists would have been all over it.”
The hypocrisy of Trump’s Democratic critics does not only apply to drone attacks. They are applying a double standard on Trump’s statements on whistleblowers, his treatment of the press and his allegations of overreach in government surveillance.
Democrats have skewered President Trump for his wish to name the Ukraine impeachment whistleblower and not turn over certain classified documents about Ukraine, while claiming executive privilege for others.
But Obama launched a ferocious and unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers and classified more documents than any previous president. He also presided over a massive expansion of secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency. Only after immense political pressure did he reveal the extent of his use of drones against suspected terrorists.
“Obama did not reverse what Bush did, he went beyond it,” said James Bamford, journalist and author of numerous books about the National Security Agency. “Obama [was] just able to wrap it up in a better-looking package. He is more liberal, more eloquent. He does not look like a cowboy.”
The Obama administration used the 1917 Espionage Act with unprecedented vigor, prosecuting more people under that law for leaking sensitive information to the public than all previous administrations in U.S. history combined. Obama’s Justice Department dug into confidential communications between news organizations and their sources as part of that effort.
In 2013, the Obama administration obtained the records of 20 Associated Press office phone lines and reporters’ home and cell phones, seizing them without notice, as part of an investigation into the disclosure of information about a foiled al-Qaida terrorist plot. AP called the seizure a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news-gathering activities, betraying information about its operations “that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
Obama’s Justice Department also secretly dogged Fox News journalist James Rosen, getting his phone records, tracking his arrivals and departures at the State Department through his security-badge use, obtaining a search warrant to see his personal emails and naming him as a possible criminal conspirator in the investigation of a news leak.
“The Obama administration,” The New York Times editorial board wrote at the time, “has moved beyond protecting government secrets to threatening fundamental freedoms of the press to gather news.”
When it was recently revealed that President Trump also attempted a drone assassination of a terrorist leader in Yemen at the same time as the Soleimani strike, more Democrats cried abuse of power.
Yet Trump has been reducing U.S. drone activity in Yemen. According to the Long War Journal, which tracks U.S. counterterrorism operations abroad, the United States conducted eight strikes against militants in Yemen in 2019, down from a high of about 125 strikes in 2017. The attacks have targeted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the local branch of ISIS.
If there is anything the Trump Administration did wrong regarding the Soleimani killing, it was making the explanation too convoluted. Attorney General Bob Barr and lawyers from the Pentagon and White House had all signed off on the legality of the strike.
Soleimani’s long history of killing Americans was more than enough to pass the Obama drone strike test. If the lawyers needed precedent, all they had to do was go back to how Obama compiled and executed his kill list.
“There isn’t a president who has taken more terrorists off the field than me,” Obama boasted at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Administration officials should just play the tape back for Democrats.