Kill lists: Barack Obama’s blind spot

He opposes the death penalty in the US, after lengthy trials, but issued kill orders for Muslims overseas with no trial at all.

In May 2013, demonstrators stood near a mock drone at the gates of Fort McNair where President Barack Obama was due to speak at the National Defense University in Washington [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The first volume of former President Barack Obama’s memoirs, A Promised Land, has recently been published. Most of the commentary about these memoirs has contrasted the former constitutional law professor’s polite and consensual approach to government to the mayhem that has taken place under his successor, President Donald J Trump.

Reviews of the book have carried little criticism, except for some rather fatuous commentary in the British press about Michelle Obama’s breach of royal protocol when she put her arm around Queen Elizabeth II on the couple’s first state visit to London.

Very little has been said about Obama’s immoral and counterproductive approach to the so-called “war on terror” – which has set human rights back a long way, and only encouraged his successor to behave even more reprehensibly.

I should preface any discussion by saying that I voted for Obama twice, and I do not regret this, given the alternatives – just imagine John McCain dying, leaving Sarah Palin in the White House. Also, it must be said that, in the unlikely circumstance that I was somehow installed as president, I would have a great time running the most powerful nation on earth, but I would get plenty of decisions wrong.

It would, though, be important to recognise my mistakes and try to correct them. Obama spends plenty of pages on challenges and achievements, but less on accepting his errors.

On his very first day in office, as Obama proudly writes, he made two commitments: “One … was closing Gitmo, the military prison at Guantanamo Bay – and thus halting the continuing stream of prisoners placed in indefinite detention there. Another was my executive order ending torture.” Both were indeed important announcements although, instead of being closed in 12 months, Guantanamo remains open 12 years later, and my clients continue to be abused there.

Obama writes that his “highest priority was creating strong systems of transparency, accountability, and oversight – ones that included Congress and the judiciary and would provide a credible legal framework”. All the sadder, then, that Obama sided with Republicans to suppress Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Senate torture report, so that much of the truth remained behind the sealed doors of the CIA. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Perhaps even more important, in a little-noted but extraordinary development, Obama ramped up the use of “kill lists” where he acted as judge and jury in the White House and imposed a secret death sentence on people who had hitherto been taken to prison, albeit Guantanamo. This policy was proudly leaked to the media, dubbed “Terror Tuesday”: Obama himself would watch a slide presentation of bearded Muslims and then, like a latter-day Emperor Caligula in the Colosseum, turn his thumb down to authorise their assassination by Hellfire Missile.

One problem facing all presidents is that they must make decisions on topics where they have no experience, often based on advice from people whose biases go unchallenged. Terror Tuesday smacked of someone with little understanding of “extremism” who – refusing to countenance torture and indefinite detention – felt he had to do something else to remain “tough on terrorism”. He turned to his advisors, and between them, they made matters exponentially worse. Obama provoked many more to join the ranks of his enemies, inflamed by evidence that this man who purported to promote human rights was a hypocrite, ignoring 200 years of history – assassination was first declared illegal by Emer de Vattel in 1797.

His book sadly confirms this in stark terms, and without repentance. “Each month, I chaired a meeting in the Situation Room,” he writes. “The Bush administration had developed a ranking of terrorist targets, a kind of ‘Top 20’ list complete with photos, alias information, and vital statistics reminiscent of those on baseball cards; generally, whenever someone on the list was killed, a new target was added, leading Rahm [Emanuel] to observe that ‘al-Qaeda’s HR department must have trouble filling that number 21 slot.’ In fact, my hyperactive chief of staff – who’d spent enough time in Washington to know that his new, liberal president couldn’t afford to look soft on terrorism – was obsessed with the list, cornering those responsible for our targeting operations to find out what was taking so long when it came to locating number 10 or 14.”

In other words, the law professor who opposed the racist imposition of the death penalty by state courts jettisoned all his principles in the interests of domestic poll numbers and applied the death penalty without trial exclusively to Muslims.

Obama was perhaps blinded by the technology being used. “The National Security Agency, or NSA, already the most sophisticated electronic-intelligence-gathering organisation in the world,” he glows, “employed new supercomputers and decryption technology worth billions of dollars to comb cyberspace in search of terrorist communications and potential threats.”

On his watch, the US was targeting people using the metadata on their phones, so if you made calls that seemed suspicious, you could end up on the wrong end of a missile. This is how Al Jazeera Pakistan station chief Ahmed Zaidan ended up on one of those CIA slide presentations, labelled a member of al-Qaeda because he had interviewed all kinds of people from Osama bin Laden on down.

We did not learn of this dangerous defamation from Obama’s vaunted transparency, but from a leak by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Rather than applauding, or at least acknowledging, the exposure of a criminal conspiracy to murder Zaidan, Obama’s attorney general focused on bringing Snowden to the US, bargaining with Russia that if they forced him to “come home”, he would not be tortured or executed.

The same intelligence agencies targeting Muslims for death under Obama were responsible for the intelligence that harvested the detainees to be taken to Guantanamo. This should have proven a useful petri dish in which to study the reliability of the information that informs those White House slide shows.

Overall, there have been 780 Guantanamo prisoners, said to be the “worst of the worst terrorists” in the world. Today, just 40 remain – 740 have been released after retrospective findings – by the six top US intelligence agencies – in almost all cases that they are “no threat to the US or their coalition allies”.

In other words, in more than 90 percent of the cases, the agencies quietly accepted that they were wrong, yet these are the kind of people who Obama would have executed by drone. That is an extraordinary error rate.

What evidence is there that the “sophisticated” intelligence behind the “kill list” is any better? Very little. Indeed, one of my own passions over several years has been to assemble data – facts, not woolly words – evaluating how the Drone Age has been impacting the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama authorised hundreds of attacks, supposed to eliminate our enemies. In targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, the CIA has thus far killed 76 children and 29 innocent adults, yet the leader of al-Qaeda is reportedly still alive.

Seventy-six children: each was a much-loved child in a family, and in a local community, all of whom we turned into enemies. In other words – just like Guantanamo, but more so – the Obama Doctrine created exponentially more enemies for America.

In his book, Obama dwells on some of the speeches he gave. One, he writes, “intended mainly for domestic consumption, would insist that America’s long-term national security depended on fidelity to our Constitution and the rule of law, acknowledging that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 we’d sometimes fallen short of those standards and laying out how my administration would approach counterterrorism going forward”. Nice words, just not what he did.

There are consequences for American democracy when a president blunders over the line. In 2012, John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, wrote that the “revelation that President Obama, operating off a government ‘kill list,’ has been personally directing who should be targeted for death by military drones … merely pushes us that much closer to that precipitous drop-off to authoritarianism”.

Four years later, we elected Donald Trump.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.