The Conversation

Is This the Biggest Lie in Obama's Drone Speech?

One of the most overlooked bits of Obama's drone speech last week was the claim that capturing terrorists is always our first option before using drone strikes. Obama claimed "America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists; our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute."

That sounds good coming from a constitutional scholar, but the numbers don't back up Obama's claim. In a NY Times op-ed published last year, former DOD counterterrorism offical Marisa L. Porges wrote:

Since 2010, there have been about 2,000 such strikes in Pakistan alone, with hundreds more in Yemen and North Africa. Meanwhile, only one alleged terrorist outside of Afghanistan — a Somali named Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame — was captured, held and interrogated. He was later flown to New York to stand trial.

Capture or kills missions have been debated since 9/11 when the CIA put together plans to send teams after wanted terrorists. But that secret program officially ended in 2009 after Director Leon Panetta became aware of it. Since then President Obama's efforts have been aimed at closing Gitmo not adding to its numbers.

There have been a handful of captures such as this one in 2011, but those are the exceptions to the rule. The rule is exemplified by this report yesterday:

The Pakistani Taliban’s No. 2 commander was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike Wednesday, two Pakistani intelligence officials and a Pakistani Taliban commander said, a potentially significant blow to an insurgent group that has been linked to a series of brutal attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Obama has an unspoken policy of killing terrorists rather than making attempts to capture them. It is simply not true that "our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute." The administration's preference, in practice, is to use drones rather than risk the lives of men on the ground or have to deal with hunger strikes by permanent detainees.


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