How did a constitutional law professor, vocal critic of President George W. Bush’s war on terror, and Nobel Peace Prize winner come to oversee an unprecedented campaign of secret targeted killing with drones, as well as the most extensive dragnet surveillance that the world has ever seen? While some have blamed President Barack Obama’s personal failings, and others have argued that these acts vindicate Bush’s policies, both explanations miss a deeper reality. These programs are best understood not as unique to Obama or Bush, or even the United States, but as reflections of how the world is changing in ways that threaten not only fundamental human rights to life and privacy, but the essence of democracy itself. As such, they raise questions that will not go away under this president or the next, but that will with increasing urgency confront nations around the world.
The drone and surveillance programs, like much of counterterrorism today, are driven principally by two phenomena: on the one hand, previously unthinkable terrorist threats, and on the other, equally unanticipated technological developments. These twin factors have motivated and enabled security agencies to undertake measures that were once impossible—and to do so in secret, without the awareness, much less approval, of the people on whose behalf they act.
Despite his criticisms of President Bush’s war on terror, Obama has maintained and even escalated some of Bush’s most controversial measures. Obama deserves credit for ending torture and shutting down the CIA’s secret prisons, in which, as the recently disclosed report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) shows, CIA agents and contractors subjected detainees to brutal, unconscionable, and illegal treatment. Obama attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to close Guantánamo. But he has also sharply increased remote-controlled killings of suspected terrorists. According to the New America Foundation, President Bush launched forty-nine drone strikes, but Obama more than 440. They have been used in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, countries with which we are not at war, often far from any battlefield. And the strikes have been used to kill many persons who were not at the time of their deaths engaged in any imminent hostilities against us.
According to one inside account, the US drone “kill list” was reviewed on weekly conference calls with as many as one hundred government officials, a procedure that only Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary, would call due process. The attacks are approved and carried out in secret, and not acknowledged even after the fact. For much of Obama’s term, the criteria for selecting targets and the process employed were both obscure. For years, the US did not even admit…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.