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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson October 5, 2011

Should President Barack Obama apologize for flip-flop on drone strikes? Louisiana lawmaker says yes

During an Oct. 3, 2011, appearance on the Fox Business Network, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., said he agreed with  comments critical of President Barack Obama that former Vice President Dick Cheney had offered one day earlier during an interview on CNN’s State of the Union.

Cheney had argued that Obama had criticized aspects of the Bush-Cheney approach to countering terrorism, yet once in office chose to follow many of his predecessors’ policies. "If you've got the president of the United States out there saying we overreacted to 9/11 on our watch, that's not good," Cheney said.

Host Candy Crowley then asked Cheney, "You'd like an apology, it sounds like?"

Cheney responded, "Well, I would. I think that would be, not for me, but I think for the Bush administration. …"

Fleming, in his Fox Business Network interview, echoed Cheney’s line of argument. During the interview, host Eric Bolling asked Fleming, "Does the president owe an apology to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney?"

Fleming answered, "Absolutely, Eric. I agree with the former Vice President. President Obama is more and more beginning to look like the hypocrite-in-chief when it comes to the war on terrorism. All sorts of things that he criticized the president for, he's actually continued and even extended. This drone attack program, he's got it at the highest level ever."

The final part of Fleming’s comment is what caught our eye -- that Obama had essentially flip-flopped on the use of drones to attack terrorist targets. The issue was particularly timely because just days earlier, Obama had announced the killing by drone of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born extremist Muslim cleric linked to several terrorist plots against Americans. He had been considered one of the nation’s top terrorist targets.

Many human-rights advocates have expressed feelings about drone strikes that range from unease to outright opposition. So we decided to check whether Obama had expressed opposition to using drones to assassinate terrorist targets prior to becoming president. (We did not receive a reply from Fleming’s office for this story.)

First, some background on drones, recapping what we first published in a pair of analyses in 2010.

Drones are remote-controlled, pilotless planes that can conduct surveillance and, if specially equipped, fire weapons on targets of interest, sometimes killing individuals. Because using drones does not put U.S. troops at direct risk, they have become increasingly in demand as a tool for combating terrorists.

Drones were initially used during the George W. Bush administration, but their use has increased under Obama. They have been used with regularity on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and in tribal areas of Pakistan by uniformed military forces, and have also reportedly been used by the CIA.

Since 2011 is not yet over, it’s not possible to know whether this year will set a record for drone attacks, as Fleming suggested. However, it’s clear that the Obama Administration has used them aggressively and far more than Bush did. According to statistics compiled by the centrist New America Foundation, the U.S. made nine drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007, 33 in 2008, 53 in 2009 -- Obama’s first year in office -- and 118 in 2010.

Through Oct. 2, 2011, the foundation recorded 60 strikes, which would not be a record-setting pace. However, in general, Fleming is correct that their use has increased under Obama.

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Cheney has a point that the Obama administration is now carrying out some of the policies it once opposed. Obama has backed off plans to close Guantanamo (we rated this a Promise Broken) and to enact an alternative to military tribunals (also a Promise Broken).

But did Obama -- as Fleming suggests -- do a 180 on drone attacks?

We see no evidence of it.

A White House spokesman told us that candidate Obama hadn’t criticized drone attacks. None of the 500-plus campaign promises we have been tracking dealt with drones. In Google and Nexis searches, we found no criticism of drone attacks by Obama or his campaign aides.

F. Whitten Peters -- a Washington attorney who, as a supporter unaffiliated with the campaign, co-authored an Oct. 20, 2008, op-ed praising Obama’s military and counter-terrorism agenda -- said he didn’t recall hearing any criticism from the campaign about the drone program. And a foreign policy scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation said he didn’t remember any either.

"I do not recall offhand any Obama criticisms of drones," said Ted R. Bromund, a senior research fellow at Heritage. "He did regularly criticize the Bush Administration's broader counter-terrorism policies as lawless," even though he continued many of these policies.

Bromund added that Obama’s disinclination to curb drone attacks "has been widely criticized on the left," so much so that the administration had to assign Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, to defend it publicly in a March 25, 2010, address to the American Society of International Law. Koh, the former dean of Yale Law School, came into office as a hero of liberal human-rights activists, but his high-profile justification for drone strikes has driven a wedge between him and many of his old allies.

Justifications such as Koh’s "are on weak ground," said Mary Ellen O'Connell, a University of Notre Dame law professor. "International law does not support attacking on a state’s territory where the state is not responsible for a significant armed attack on the defender."

In the meantime, we found two pieces of evidence that suggested that candidate Obama was comfortable with targeting terrorists for assassination and with drones.

In a foreign policy speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in August 2007, Obama said he understood that then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf "has his own challenges. But let me make this clear: There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al-Qaida leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will."

This stance became controversial, earning criticism from his primary rival (and future Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton, as well as Obama’s eventual general-election opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Meanwhile, in a policy paper called "A 21st Century Military for America," the Obama campaign promised to "preserve our unparalleled airpower capabilities to deter and defeat any conventional competitors, swiftly respond to crises across the globe, and support our ground forces. … We need greater investment in advanced technology ranging from the revolutionary, like unmanned aerial vehicles and electronic warfare capabilities, to systems like the C-17 cargo and KC-X air refueling aircraft — which may not be glamorous to politicians, but are the backbone of our future ability to extend global power."

Neither of these two pieces of evidence proves that candidate Obama supported a policy of assassination-by-drone. The Wilson Center speech doesn’t cite drone attacks by name, and the position paper doesn’t specifically say that the drones it supports would be used to target terrorists. But along with the lack of any other evidence to the contrary, we think it’s fair to say that Obama did not change his position on drones between the time he was a candidate and the time he entered the Oval Office.

Our ruling

Fleming -- and Cheney -- have a point that Obama has flip-flopped on some positions concerning counter-terrorism, notably his decision not to close Guantanamo. But Fleming was wrong when he cited the "drone attack program" as evidence that Obama was a hypocrite. We find no evidence to support the claim that candidate Obama opposed drone strikes on terrorist targets and no hypocrisy when he increased the frequency of those strikes well beyond what Bush, his predecessor, did. We rate Fleming’s statement False.

Our Sources

John Fleming, interview on Fox Business Network, Oct. 3, 2011 (CQ subscribers only)

Dick Cheney, interview on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Oct. 2, 2011 (CQ subscribers only)

New America Foundation, "The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011," accessed Oct. 4, 2011

Barack Obama, speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, August 2007

Obama for President, "A 21st Century Military for America," 2008

Richard Danzig and F. Whitten Peters, "By siding with right fight, Obama showed mettle to lead" (op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel), Oct. 20, 2008 (accessed via Nexis)

Associated Press, "Analysis: Campaign vow meets harsh Afghan reality," Oct. 5, 2009 (accessed via Nexis)

PolitiFact, "Lieberman says president can approve killing a U.S. citizen who affiliates with terrorists," May 11, 2010

PolitiFact, "Do drone attacks comply with international law?" July 21, 2010

E-mail interview with John Pike, director of, Oct. 4, 2011

E-mail interview with Mary Ellen O’Connell, University of Notre Dame law professor, Oct. 4, 2011

E-mail interview with Ted R. Bromund, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Oct. 4, 2011

E-mail interview with F. Whitten Peters, partner with the law firm Williams & Connolly LLP, Oct. 4, 2011

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Should President Barack Obama apologize for flip-flop on drone strikes? Louisiana lawmaker says yes

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