06/05/2012 07:26 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

When Presidential Politics Collides With Secret War

Not a week goes by without a new strategic leak from the White House about President Obama's personal role in the CIA's secret wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iran.

U.S. officials have eagerly told the New York Times how Obama personally draws up "kill lists" for drone strikes and directs cyber-attacks on Iran. Commentators have highlighted the role of the leaks in countering the Republicans' most well-worn avenue of attack against a Democratic president, the charge that he is "weak on defense".

The White House has even gone public with Obama's support for CIA rules that count nearly all victims of U.S. attacks as "combatants". U.S. special forces officers in Afghanistan had already admitted that they count civilians killed in attacks as combatants based on "guilt by proximity". Now we have confirmation that the CIA follows similar rules, discrediting official denials of large numbers of civilian deaths in drone strikes and other targeted killings.

The White House's strategic leaks about secret operations have opened a Pandora's box of troubling questions about Obama's secret wars and their role in his re-election campaign:

1) Now that the White House has publicly admitted to unleashing cyberwar between countries, how safe will our computers be from cyber-attacks by foreign governments? Why not instead work with other countries on a treaty to prohibit cyberwar, or at least to protect the rest of us as non-combatants -- a sort of 4th Geneva Convention for cyberspace?

2) Americans have grudgingly come to accept the notion of a candidate spending up to a billion dollars to win a presidential election, but killing thousands of people and then bragging about it to win an election may still cross a line with many voters. In fact it would be troubling if it didn't.

3) Half the night raids conducted by Joint Special Operations Command target the wrong person or house, and 86 percent of the people detained in night raids in Afghanistan are released within two weeks for lack of evidence. The White House claims that CIA drone strikes are based on better intelligence, but how much better? When the operations are secret and the innocent are dead along with the guilty, how can we tell them apart?

4) Our government's militarized, "Whack-a-Mole" approach to counter-terrorism has resulted in a huge increase in terrorism since 2001, according to U.S. State Department figures. Obama's escalation of targeted killings has done nothing to reverse that trend. By personally investing so much in a failed strategy, has Obama diverted U.S. policy-makers from finding a more effective and legitimate policy that would actually reduce terrorism?

5) Obama is killing innocent people in countries that we are not at war with. If the leader of another country was conducting drone strikes in the U.S., we'd be calling for his head, along with those of any U.S. officials who were collaborating with him. That's exactly how people are reacting in the countries and regions affected, which helps to explain why this has fueled rather than reduced the spread of terrorism.

6) The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force gave the president the authority to use "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons" he determined to have "planned, authorized, committed or aided" the September 11 terrorist crimes. But most of the people Obama is targeting had nothing to do with September 11, so there is no basis in U.S. law for most of these operations, as Bush's State Department Legal Advisor John Bellinger has pointed out.

7) Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, has called for an end to CIA drone strikes and warned that U.S. targeted killings are "increasingly used in circumstances which violate the relevant rules of international law." In plain English, these are war crimes.

The confusion of military and electoral strategy in these strategic leaks to the New York Times is disturbing in itself. What are the families of U.S. troops supposed to make of this? After everything they've endured in the past decade, are their loved ones' lives now to become pawns in a chest-thumping contest between Obama and Romney? This has to be be the very last thing they need or deserve.

Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He writes on war, militarism and international law for Z Magazine and at He wrote the chapter on "Obama At War" for the just released book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama's First Term as a Progressive Leader.