Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer and apparent short-lister to be the next attorney general, goes to London a few weeks after the election and does a major media interview and speech on the most contentious military-legal issues of the day.
Sound like an audition? It isn’t, officials close to the situation tell the E-Ring.
Johnson’s comments -- in which he defended the legality of the U.S. war on terrorism, including the use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists -- came unexpectedly this week. The Pentagon did not advertise his speech, and Johnson does not travel with a U.S. media entourage like a cabinet official.
But in a BBC interview, Johnson said drones are accurate enough for strikes to continue, despite the civilian casualties they have caused. Then, in a speech at Oxford University, Johnson went further than perhaps any administration in talking about the possible end of the war on terrorism..
Here is the passage causing a stir:
In the current conflict with al Qaeda, I can offer no prediction about when this conflict will end, or whether we are, as Winston Churchill described it, near the "beginning of the end."
I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point -- a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.
At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an “armed conflict” against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda, or are parts of groups unaffiliatedwith al Qaeda, for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community -- with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats.
That is not a soft sentiment. It is an earthquake in legal worlds where scholars question the very constitutionality of applying rules of war and the use of militaries to chase after terrorists once pursued by law enforcement groups from Northern Ireland to the Middle East.
“It is an unconventional conflict, against an unconventional enemy, and will not end in conventional terms,” Johnson said.
Despite the legal significance of Johnson’s comments, a senior administration official insisted the attorney general’s chair played no part in the London swing -- in part because Johnson is so well-known and liked by the White House that there's a perception that he does not have to audition for the attorney general's job or any other.
“This speech has been long in train,” said a senior administration official. “He wanted to engage a primarily British audience to discuss issues that concern both countries.” The United Kingdom has long rejected U.S. arguments applying rules of war to the military’s pursuit of terrorism as a borderless war.
“That’s really the nub of it. This is part and parcel of his current duties, not about future prospect. That’s the god’s honest truth,” the official said.