The best thing about President Obama’s speech on counterterrorism last week was that it revived a long overdue debate over reining in the powers of the presidency in wartime.
The president attempted to strike a balance between the need to use force against persistent threats and the obligation to overhaul the structures put in place to respond to 9/11 — from the use of drones to the creation of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.
It’s about time. In the 12 years since the attack on the Twin Towers, presidential authority has expanded dramatically in response to the threat, but that does not mean it should be that way forever. It offends the constitutional foundation of American democracy for any chief executive to wield permanent, unchecked authority to order drone strikes anywhere in the world beyond our borders against anyone deemed a suitable target — including Americans — and past time to impose effective limits on such power.
The tone of the president’s speech was thoughtful and analytical, reflecting a desire to narrow the scope of the terror fight without lowering our guard against existing threats.
But the speech left many questions unanswered. The 16-page policy guideline the president approved prior to the speech remains classified. And despite all the talk about transparency, the administration is still withholding from Congress legal opinions governing targeted killings.
Similarly, the president reaffirmed his commendable desire to close Guantánamo, but the steps he outlined suggest the prison will remain open for years.
The decision to find a new envoy to deal with the complicated task of moving detainees out should have been taken earlier. It will take weeks, if not months, for a new appointee to be up and running. At the same time, the president stopped short of asserting unilateral transfer authority for the 166 detainees still on the island, meaning he’ll have to coax support from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have thwarted his every effort to clear the prison. There is no reason to believe that won’t continue to be the case.
The most disappointing part of the president’s speech dealt with the administration’s aggressive efforts to spy on reporters’ work. The president offered a stout defense of the need to investigate national security leaks, but that’s not the issue.
No one questions the government’s need to protect its secrets nor its right to do so. The issue, as we noted in an earlier editorial, is the overly broad scope of the investigation against The Associated Press, which involved seizing records of 20 office and home phone lines for reporters and editors, and the sneaky way the government circumvented the usual process.
Instead of filing a subpoena for the records and giving the news media a fair chance to argue against it in court, prosecutors went to the phone company to obtain the records and informed The AP after the fact.
Asking Attorney General Eric Holder to lead a review of the process offers little comfort. Mr. Holder’s department has been at the forefront of the effort to spy on journalists, and Mr. Holder himself reportedly signed off on a search warrant for the phone records of Fox News correspondent James Rosen in a related case.
Mr. Obama declared in his Thursday speech at the National Defense University that he was troubled by the possibility that such actions could put a chill on investigative journalism.
If the president means what he says, he’ll have to ride herd on his own Justice Department to make sure such blatant violations of press freedom are never repeated again.