The Obama sanction

The White House recently leaked the claim that President Obama personally chooses which suspected terrorists to attempt to kill with Predator missiles. Given the success of our Predator strikes, Obama inflicts a severe sanction on those whom he selects. Clint Eastwood has got nothing on him.

The Obama sanction is stiffer than measures that have drawn severe criticism, such as detaining terrorists for long periods of time and interrogating them using harsh methods including sleep deprivation, blows in excess of a slap, and (in an extremely small number of instances) waterboarding. In addition, the use of these less prejudicial sanctions has exposed U.S. personnel to intense scrutiny and potential legal jeopardy.

After a lengthy review, the CIA’s Inspector General, John Helgerson, referred approximately 20 cases of alleged impropriety in the treatment of detainees to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. One — which involved an assault on a detainee who died in prison — resulted in a criminal prosecution.

But this was not the end of the scrutiny. After the Justice Department was finished, the same cases went back to the CIA where they were reviewed by the agency’s “Accountability Board.” That Board was tasked with determining whether the CIA personnel in question should be disciplined or discharged.

According to Jack Goldstein’s new book, Power and Constraint, having to appear before this Board, regardless of the outcome, is a black mark at the Agency. Thus, some CIA officials simply quit. Others were reprimanded or demoted. Some were found to have done nothing wrong.

But this was not the end of the scrutiny. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered a career prosecutor to re-investigate some of the cases that the Justice Department had previously decided not to prosecute. As Goldsmith observes, Holder’s decision to reopen these cases was unprecedented and demoralizing to the CIA. CIA personnel who had been told that the matter was finally behind them once again had to lawyer up and prepare to face a grand jury.

If this kind of scrutiny is appropriate for the decisions of ordinary CIA employees who may or may not have used excessive (but almost always non-deadly) force against people suspected of terrorism, shouldn’t Obama’s deadly decisions be subject to scrutiny? Shouldn’t one or more review panel undertake a detailed review of Obama’s basis for believing that the individuals he sanctioned were terrorists, whether a less severe sanction could have been imposed, and whether sufficient care was taken to minimize collateral damage? Otherwise, where’s the accountability?

The answer to these questions, of course, is no. The killing of terrorists through Predator attacks ranks among Obama’s top accomplishments. It would be insane to second-guess his decisions.

In my view, the scrutiny directed at CIA personnel who were attempting to obtain information from detainees — information the acquisition of which could save lives — was also insane. Some of those investigated may have been overzealous or used very poor judgment. But Obama too may be overzealous — he may be killing far more indiscriminately than he should be — and he may be exercising poor judgment.

We shouldn’t care enough to waste resources and potentially cramp the president’s style, deadly though it is. Nor should we have cared enough to waste the resources expended to hound the CIA interrogators and potentially to deter their successors from aggressively obtaining life-saving information.

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