Remarks by the President at the National Defense University
Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment
Can President Barack Obama end the “war on terror”? As a purely semantic matter, it began in September 2001 when George W. Bush first used those words, and it ended in March 2009, when the Defense Department replaced the term with “Overseas Contingency Operations.” But the latter term has never caught on. The main reason is not that President Bush’s label sells more newspapers, or flows more easily off the tongue, but because the war itself goes on. We continue to fight al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their ever-morphing “associated forces,” in Afghanistan and beyond. We continue to hold alleged enemy fighters in indefinite detention, effectively as “prisoners of war”—many for more than a decade now. The CIA and the military continue to kill people without hearings or trials, using unmanned drones. And as we have recently learned, the National Security Agency has dramatically expanded its surveillance activities, at home and abroad, in the name of gathering intelligence about our clandestine foes.
The “war on terror” was always a misnomer. Bush claimed that we were fighting all “terrorist organizations of global reach.” Shortly after September 11, at a time of national trauma, he asked Congress for an open-ended license to use military force “to deter and pre-empt any future acts of terrorism or aggression against the United States.” But Congress declined. Instead, it authorized military force against those who carried out the terrorist attacks and those who harbored them—al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Still, the conflict with al-Qaeda has lasted more than twelve years, and when we withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, al-Qaeda will continue to exist. Even if not quite as limitless as Bush’s proposed war, this conflict is sufficiently ill-defined and endless to justify its still-popular label as the “war on terror.”
Some have suggested that this is a permanent state of affairs, and we might as well get used to it. As al-Qaeda continues to “evolve” and to inspire others to attack, the United States will continue to use military force to respond. Drones in particular can, at relatively low cost, monitor suspects remotely for months and then deliver bombs to execute them with the push of a computer button half a world away. They seem well suited to fighting clandestine, nonstate terrorist groups. When it works, the drone allows for the surgical elimination of threats without risking widespread loss of civilians’ or soldiers’ lives. (The number of civilians killed by drones is a matter of speculation and debate, but drones arguably cause less collateral damage than virtually any other form of warfare.) The pace of drone attacks has slowed in the last year and a half, partly because of increasing recognition of the resentment and backlash they provoke from local populations, but they are still an important weapon. When the US learned in late July of an apparent plan by the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in …