Appearing on the radio Thursday with host Tavis Smiley, professor Cornel West argued that President Barack Obama is, like Presidents George W. Bush and Richard Nixon before him, a “war criminal” uniquely responsible for the deaths of “over 200 children.”
West’s words were in response to a question about the administration’s seeming preference for killing terrorism suspects from the air rather than risking American lives to take them prisoner and hold them for an indefinite amount of time in military custody. A legal whitepaper obtained by NBC News recently exposed the Obama administration’s once-secret justification for the program, which authorizes a deadly airstrike if intelligence officials believe it may take out any “senior operational leaders” of al Qaeda or “associated forces,” even if that includes an American citizen.
“I think, my dear brother, the chickens are coming home to roost,” West told Smiley. “We’ve been talking about this for a good while, the immorality of drones, dropping bombs on innocent people. It’s been over 200 children so far. These are war crimes.”
Troublingly enough, West is right on the number: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that up to 216 children have died in three countries the U.S. is not formally at war with — Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — as a result of suspected U.S. drone strikes starting in 2002 and dramatically escalating during Obama’s first term. Out of an estimated 451 total drone strikes during that period, over 300 were ordered by Obama against Pakistanis alone. The Bureau estimates that up to 4,643 people in all have been killed by drone strikes in those three countries.
Similarly, a United Nations committee said this month that “hundreds” of children have been killed by U.S. drone strikes since 2008, many which are personally approved by Obama, according to The New York Times.
“I think we have to be very honest, let us not be deceived: Nixon, Bush, Obama, they’re war criminals,” West said. “They have killed innocent people in the name of the struggle for freedom, but they’re suspending the law, very much like Wall Street criminals. The law is suspended for them, but the law applies for the rest of us. You and I, brother Tavis, if we kill an innocent person we go to jail, and we’re going to be in there forever.”
Despite the largely unchecked, secret military campaigns abroad, Obama said in a recent public discussion on Google Plus that no drone strike has ever killed an American on U.S. soil, and said he’s pushing Congress for enhanced oversight of the program.
“I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counter terrorism,” he said. “There have to be checks and balances on it.”
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, along those same lines, endorsed the idea of establishing a secret drone court that would weigh the evidence against an American citizen abroad who officials suspect is involved in terrorism, potentially shutting down a planned drone strike if the proof is not compelling enough.
John Brennan, Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, was a key architect of the administration’s drone program. His confirmation hearing was delayed this week until after a recess by Senators demanding Obama release more information on the drone program and last year’s attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
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