A lot can happen in a year. And a lot can't.
Twelve months ago today, Barack Obama gave a landmark national security speech in which he frankly acknowledged that the United States had at least in some cases compromised its values in the years since 9/11 – and offered his vision of a US national security policy more directly in line with "the freedoms and ideals that we defend." It was widely praised as "a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America".
Addressing an audience at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington, the president pledged greater transparency about targeted killings, rededicated himself to closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and urged Congress to refine and ultimately repeal the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which has been invoked to justify everything from military detention to drones strikes.
A year later, none of these promises have been met. Instead, drone strikes have continue (and likely killed and wounded civilians), 154 men remain detained at Guantanamo and the administration has taken no steps to roll back the AUMF. This is not the sort of change Obama promised.
Targeted killings have been a hallmark of this administration's counterterrorism strategy. Obama sharply increased the use of armed drones (begun under George W Bush), which have conducted lethal strikes against alleged terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The strikes have killed hundreds of people, including civilians, and some have clearly violated international law. Yet the US government has long refused to disclose basic information about the program, from its full legal basis to how it identifies targets.
In his NDU speech, Obama noted that he had just declassified information about three strikes in Yemen and Pakistan that killed four US citizens "to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue and to dismiss some of the more outlandish claims that have been made." But the legal memos detailing alleged authority for those strikes remain secret. Only when pressed politically this month – key senators threatened to delay the vote on his appeals court nominee, David Barron, until they received copies of secret drone memos Barron wrote – did the Justice Department make two of a reported 11 memos available to senators (but not to members of the House of Representatives or the public). As soon as procedural hurdles for Barron's nomination were lifted, the Justice Department took back the memos, showing – and not for the first time – that the administration will increase transparency only under threat.
There has been some progress – this week the Justice Department announced it would comply with a court order to release to the public a redacted version of one memo in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. But the document may take months to produce, and it's not clear if what remains after all those deletions will actually leave the public any better informed about how the administration justifies its actions.
In a similar vein, a White House fact sheet released the day of Obama's speech outlined policies to reduce the risk of civilian casualties from drone strikes, and emphasizing a preference for capture over lethal force. But the document said only that some unspecified policies had already been implemented, and others would be in the future. To this day, the administration refuses to say even if they are actually in effect – and not all members of Congress (and certainly not the public) have access to the full, classified policy guidance.
Human Rights Watch has documented the loss of civilian life in targeted killings in Yemen conducted both before and after May 2013, when the policy changes were announced, including an attack that struck a wedding procession in December of that year, killing 12 men and wounding at least 15 other people, including the bride. Yet the US government has refused to officially acknowledge the strike, or announce the results of any investigation into those deaths. This is not transparency: it's willful concealment.
The Obama administration has said that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force – passed just days after the September 11 attacks – provides the legal basis for at least some drone strikes. This week top Obama administration officials testified before Congress, but they refused to say precisely what impact a repeal of that law would have on targeted killings. And despite Obama's pledge to roll back the law, his administration has taken no public steps to do so, leaving it up to Congress to hold angry hearings and draft bills that would limit the use of lethal force.
Obama's speech a year ago offered real promise. In the 12 months since, the US could have disclosed the full legal basis for targeted killings, allowing the public to engage in an informed debate about whether and under what circumstances the US may use lethal force away from the battlefield . It could have implemented a new drone policy that would have sharply reduced civilian loss of life and provided compensation for those families harmed by US strikes. Obama could have closed Guantánamo not by simply moving it elsewhere but by bringing US policy in line with the basic principle that people who have not been charged with crimes should not be imprisoned – and that those who are charged deserve fair trials.
Instead, US counterterrorism policy remains shrouded in secrecy, and the "transparency and debate" Obama pledged so eloquently have been stymied by his own polices. Rather than marking a turning point, Obama's speech turns out to have been a roadmap for what he would not accomplish in the coming year. Many of the reforms Obama pledged would go a long way towards bringing US policy in line with international law and "American ideals". He can still fulfil his promises – but with less than three years remaining in office, he needs to move quickly. Otherwise, what could have been a momentous turning point will prove to have been one more wrong turn.