The country celebrated Memorial Day on Monday to honor the sacrifices that are made by the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. President Obama showed his appreciation by laying a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. That annual event followed his speech last Thursday at the National Defense University which may change the way our country approaches war going forward.
Host Melissa Harris-Perry and her Saturday panel discussed how the speech hinted to the end of perpetual war, the possibility of bounding presidential war powers, and how the president has not used the power he already has to close the Guantanamo Bay prison.
In his Thursday speech, the president offered that “we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror.’” The end to that boundless or perpetual war will include drone warfare or as he noted, “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
The number of drone strikes the U.S. has ordered is classified. Unofficial numbers by the New America Foundation suggest there have been a total of 355 drone strikes in Pakistan, and 49 strikes in Yemen. The total number of those killed is estimated to be more than 4,000.
While drone warfare may result in less servicemen and women dying on the battlefield, who’s going to be overseeing the program? To critics of the program it seems like the drone warfare program has gone unchecked and that presidential power is boundless.
“The checks and balances of our system have failed,” said Ramzi Kassem, an associate professor of law at City University of New York who represents former and current Guantanamo detainees. “Congress has not intervened meaningfully to restrain this program and the bigger issue is that it’s classified.”
“We do have members of Congress who are briefed on this regularly. That should be oversight. Now they may well be failing to do their job,” said David Cay Johnston, author of “The Fine Print.”
The president spoke on Thursday both about briefing Congress and his desire to limit the country’s military response going forward:
Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.
But what about the power that he’s had to make a decision about the fate of the 166 men that are still imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay? More than 100 detainees are currently on hunger strike, with 34 being fed through a feeding tube. The president said in April, “I don’t want these individuals to die. Why are we doing this?”
Pardiss Kebriaei, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights thinks certain individuals could have been freed a long time ago. “There’s a national security waiver under the National Defense Authorization Act under which he can transfer 86 men that his own people have said don’t need to be there.”
Kassem said that the lack of action is a result of “a complete lack of political will on the president’s part.” Johnston took it one step further and said it’s about more than the act of releasing the detainees. “This is totally offensive to our values and makes us look terrible to the rest of the world,” he said.