from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Institutionalizing America’s Targeted Killing Program

A U.S. unmanned drone hovers over the tarmac (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

October 24, 2012

A U.S. unmanned drone hovers over the tarmac (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).
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In today’s Washington Post, Greg Miller delivers a comprehensive, forward-looking, must-read report on the Obama administration’s vast and expanding targeted killing program. In the piece, Miller provides three significant details that were previously unreported.

First, among senior Obama administration officials, “there is broad consensus [targeted killings] are likely to be extended at least another decade.” As a senior official is flippantly quoted: “We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’”

Second, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) maintains a “disposition matrix” that attempts to harmonize the CIA and JSOC kill lists, presents strategies to kill or capture individuals who appear on those lists, and describes what is required by U.S. government agencies and foreign partners should targeting information become available. Although the role played by the NCTC was previously unknown, it is consistent with the six primary missions (see page 37) established in its mandate by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

Third, the process of vetting and selecting individuals for targeted killings has been further narrowed and concentrated within the office of John Brennan—whose role as the "priest whose blessing has become indispensable" to Obama and misleading statements I have written about extensively. According to Miller’s article, Brennan ended the video conferences run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that discussed revisions to the kill lists because “Brennan thought the process shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes.” This is savvy power-grab by Brennan, although—in my experience—trigger-pullers possess considerably less enthusiasm for killing people than civilians sitting in the basement of the White House.

After following this program closely for the past half-dozen years, I have stopped being surprised by how far and how quickly the United States has moved from the international norm against assassinations or “extrajudicial killings.” As I wrote in my book on discrete military operations, opposition to assassination was widely held and endured throughout the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations through 1999 for the following reasons:

Assassinations ran counter to well-established international norms, and were prohibited under both treaty and customary international law. Third, weakening the international norm against assassinations could result in retaliatory killings of American leaders, who are more vulnerable as a consequence of living in a relatively open society. Fourth, the targeted killing of suspected terrorists or political leaders was generally considered an ineffective foreign policy tool. An assassination attempt that failed could be counterproductive, in that it would create more legal and diplomatic problems than it was worth. An attempt that succeeded, meanwhile, would likely do little to diminish the long-term threat from an enemy state or group. Finally, the secretive and treacherous aspect of targeted killings was considered antithetical to the moral and ethical precepts of the United States.

Miller’s report underscores the cementing of the mindset and apparent group-think among national security policymakers that the routine and indefinite killing of suspected terrorists and nearby military-age males is ethical, moral, legal, and effective (for now). Moreover, it demonstrates the increasing institutionalization—“codifying and streamlining the process” as Miller describes it—of executive branch power to use lethal force without any meaningful checks and balances. Recent history demonstrates that the executive branch does not willingly provide transparency and a plausible defense of its national security decisions, or cede any of its incrementally accrued powers, unless Congress, courts, or the American people care. Indeed, it is notable that Miller does not find officials worried about the legality, congressional oversight, transparency, or precedent setting for future state and nonstate powers wielding armed drones.

Having spoken with dozens of officials across both administrations, I am convinced that those serving under President Bush were actually much more conscious and thoughtful about the long-term implications of targeted killings than those serving under Obama. In part, this is because more Bush administration officials were affected by the U.S. Senate Select Committee investigation, led by Senator Frank Church, that implicated the United States in assassination plots against foreign leaders—including at least eight separate plans to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro—and President Ford’s Executive Order 11905: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”

Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: "It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?"

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