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

State of the Union Defends Targeted Killings

U.S. president Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union on February 12, 2013 (Charles Dharapak/Courtesy Reuters).

February 13, 2013

U.S. president Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union on February 12, 2013 (Charles Dharapak/Courtesy Reuters).
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Last night, President Obama’s State of the Union address included the following passage:

"Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans."

"As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."

As someone who has focused on the U.S. policies on targeted killings for the past six years, to hear these words from the president was remarkable. Just over one year ago—January 30, 2012—in response to a question from "Evan in Brooklyn, New York" during a Google+ Hang Out, Obama revealed: “Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] going after al-Qaeda suspects.” Obama continued:

"I want to make sure that the people understand actually that drones have not caused a huge amount of civilian casualties…I think there is this perception somehow that we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly…It’s not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions.” [It’s technically people in several rooms, who convene by video conference.]

The White House deserves credit for its overdue realization—slowly learned by the Bush administration regarding warrantless wiretapping, third-country renditions, and torture. However, Obama continued to promote the false dichotomy underpinning his administration’s defense of targeted killings: counterterrorism strategies must include kinetic military force, and the choice is between Operation Iraqi Freedom and drone strikes.

The "direct action" to which Obama refers is defined in the Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms as "short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or diplomatically sensitive environments and which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets."

The White House has used this phrase since June, when it obliquely reported U.S. military strikes in Yemen and Somalia in the mandated biannual War Powers Resolution reporting. Presumably, this only applies to military operations, since Obama’s failure to mention Pakistan—where over 85 percent of all U.S. nonbattlefield targeted killings have occurred—was no accident. Maintaining the myth that such operations in Pakistan are covert is necessary to claim—in the face of Freedom of Information Act requests for corresponding memoranda—that the "very fact of the existence or nonexistence of such documents is itself classified."

In addition, Obama’s declaration that the United States would go after "terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans" muddied the scope of who can be legitimately targeted. The Obama administration is careful to offer a range of adjectives to describe who can be lawfully targeted. Previous definitions include:

  • John Brennan: “Individuals who are a threat to the United States” (September 16, 2011)
  • Department of Justice: “Senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” (November 8, 2011)
  • Eric Holder: “Specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” (March 5, 2012)
  • Harold Koh: “High-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” (March 25, 2012)
  • Obama: “Our goal has been to focus on al-Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America” (September 6, 2012)

Obama’s “gravest threat to Americans” characterization is by far the most expansive definition for who can be killed by a U.S. official thus far. (The Oxford Dictionary defines grave as “giving cause for alarm or concern and solemn or serious.”) This does away with previous clarifying terms such as “senior” or “operational” leaders of al-Qaeda, any notion of attacks that are “imminent,” and the necessity to protect the U.S. homeland. This new and sweeping definition of who is “targetable” is troubling since it is open to interpretation by the executive branch interpretation, and was purposefully and deliberately included in a State of the Union address.

Finally, it is a stretch to say that the Obama administration has "kept Congress fully informed." It is true that the Senate and House intelligence committees are provided information about drone strikes conducted by the CIA. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, recently revealed the scope of oversight that his committee enjoys:

"Monthly, I have my committee go to the CIA to review them. I as chairman review every single air strike that we use in the war on terror, both from the civilian and the military side when it comes to terrorist strikes. There is plenty of oversight here."

The Senate and House armed services committees also receive briefings on drone strikes conducted by the U.S. military. However, the Senate foreign relations and House foreign affairs committees—who are supposed to provide oversight of all U.S. foreign policy—have repeatedly been refused general briefings about targeted killings by the White House, even though all relevant staffers have security clearances. As these committee members point out, it is impossible to exercise oversight over a country or region without insight into how the CIA or military conducts targeted killings. If President Obama wants to “continue to engage” with Congress, agreeing to hold closed-door briefings with these committees would be a good start.

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