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

Targeted Killings and Signature Strikes

U.S. president Obama walks out of the Oval Office on June 15, 2012 (Kevin Lemarque/Courtesy Reuters).

July 16, 2012

U.S. president Obama walks out of the Oval Office on June 15, 2012 (Kevin Lemarque/Courtesy Reuters).
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In his memoir My American Journey, Colin Powell recollects his tours in Vietnam, first as a U.S. Army captain in 1962 and 1963, and later as a major in 1968 and 1969. Due to the length of the war, Powell notes that many officers and noncommissioned officers deployed to Vietnam were wholly unprepared, leading to a “breakdown in morale, discipline, and professional judgment.”

I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male. If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front but at him. Brutal? Maybe so.

The term “military-age male” is not defined in military doctrine, though it is routinely used by military officials in counterinsurgency operations to describe individuals who are deemed guilty not based on evidence, but rather on their demography. For example, in unsecured areas of Afghanistan all “fighting-age males,” which comprise any male between the ages of fifteen and seventy, may be required to undergo a biometric scan by U.S. soldiers or Afghan security forces.

More recently, military-age male reentered the lexicon of American warfare with a New York Times passage describing the Obama administration’s methodology for “signature strikes” by drones against unnamed individuals:

It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.

As I have noted elsewhere, “signature strikes” against military-age males did not begin under Obama, but originated in early 2008 under Bush. As first revealed in a February 2008 New York Times article:

Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low.

In the summer of 2008, President Bush lowered the threshold even further for who could be targeted in Pakistan. According to a Bush administration official: “We got down to a sort of ‘reasonable man’ standard. If it seemed reasonable, you could hit it.”

One of the more disturbing recent revelations into White House foreign policy decision-making is that President Obama authorized targeted drone strikes while unaware that he had actually authorized signature strikes. According to Daniel Klaidman, when Obama was first made aware of signature strikes, the CIA’s deputy director clarified: “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t necessarily know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply, “That’s not good enough for me.” According to one adviser describing the president’s unease: “‘He would squirm…he didn’t like the idea of kill ‘em and sort it out later.’” Like other controversial counterterrorism policies inherited by Obama, it did end up “good enough,” since he allowed the practice to stand in Pakistan, and in April authorized the CIA and JSOC to conduct signature strikes in Yemen as well.

Although signature strikes have been known as a U.S. counterterrorism tactic for over four years, no administration official has acknowledged or defended them on-the-record. Instead, officials emphasize that targeted killings with drones (the official term is “targeted strikes”) are only carried out against specific individuals, which are usually lumped with terms like “senior” and “al-Qaeda.”

Harold Koh: “The United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks.”

John Brennan: “This Administration’s counterterrorism efforts outside of Afghanistan and Iraq are focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States.”

Jeh Johnson: “In an armed conflict, lethal force against known, individual members of the enemy is a long-standing and long-legal practice.”

Eric Holder: “Target specific senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associated forces.”

In April, Brennan was asked, “If you could address the issue of signature strikes, which I guess aren’t necessarily targeted against specific individuals?” He replied: “You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against individuals who are involved.” Shortly thereafter, when the White House spokesperson was asked about drone strikes, he simply stated: “I am not going to get into the specifics of the process by which these decisions are made.”

It should be noted that while no government official will acknowledge or defend the practice, anonymous officials claim that the criteria for signature strikes is “tighter” today than when Obama entered office. The only known alteration to the practice is that the CIA changed its name. As Klaidman revealed:

Signature strike has gotten to be sort of a pejorative term. They sometimes call it crowd killing. And it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. If you don’t have positive ID on the people you’re targeting with these drone strikes. So the CIA actually changed the name of signature strikes to something called TADS. I had the acronym but I didn’t know what it stood for. I had a couple of words. I kind of figured it out. Terrorist, T for terrorist, S for strike and I was trying to find out what does the A-D stand for. Eventually I figured it out. It was Terrorist attack disruption strike. And I was going to put it in Newsweek. And actually it was the excerpt from my book. And various agencies from the government were very unhappy about that. I sort of could not understand why. They said, well, it’s a classified term. And I said, well, why would it be classified? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just a term to describe a particular kind of activity that we know takes place. They asked me not to print it. You know, I printed it anyway.

No matter how U.S. officials (secretly) refer to the practice, signature strikes against military-age men have been part of U.S. targeted killings outside of battlefields from their beginning. In fact, the very first targeted killing was a signature strike.

After a year-long manhunt and several missed opportunities by Yemeni soldiers, on November 3, 2002, a fusion of human intelligence assets and signals intercepts pinpointed Abu Ali al-Harithi—an operational planner in the al-Qaeda cell that bombed the USS Cole in 2002—and his bodyguards living in the Marib region near the border with Saudi Arabia. Yemeni and U.S. forces on the ground, supported by a Predator drone circling above, were monitoring al-Harithi’s group when they left a compound in two Toyota SUVs. All of the men were in one vehicle and the women in the other. According to an unnamed U.S. official, “If the women hadn’t gotten into another car, we wouldn’t have fired.” (A member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence later wondered, “What do we do, next time, if the women get into the car?”)

Reportedly, the National Security Agency (NSA) intercepted a satellite phone call coming from the SUV filled with men. After an NSA analyst—who had listened to tapes of al-Harithi’s voice for years—heard confirming evidence, he shouted: “He’s in the backseat, and he’s giving the driver directions!” With that confirmation, a CIA-controlled Predator drone was authorized to fire a single Hellfire missile, which destroyed the SUV and killed al-Harithi, four unknown Yemenis, and Ahmed Hijazi (otherwise known as Kemal Derwish)—a naturalized U.S. citizen who recruited six men from Lackawanna, New York, to briefly attend an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Lackawanna Six pled guilty to providing material support to al-Qaeda and received sentences ranging from seven to nine years in federal prison.

As the Los Angeles Times reported the drone strike: “Even though the CIA wasn’t sure who else was in the car, the customary rules of armed conflict say that anyone sitting next to a legitimate target such as Harithi was, in effect, accepting the risk of imminent death.” (Many international legal scholars would dispute this interpretation.) At the same time, U.S. officials acknowledged that the CIA did not know Hijazi was in the vehicle before the CIA launched the missile, although one later claimed his death was justifiable “collateral damage” since “he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

It is plausible that the military-age males who happened to get into al-Harithi’s SUV that day were involved with the suspected al-Qaeda operative in planning terrorist plots. However, there is no way to know this with any certainty, and the Bush administration never presented any supporting evidence to this effect. Moreover, we will never know what specific evidence was used to target al-Harithi, because some of it came from suspected al-Qaeda operative Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri. In 2008, CIA director Hayden testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that Nashiri was one of three detainees that the CIA waterboarded, and information obtained by torture is not admissible in a military commission trial.

Whether they are called signature strikes, crowd killing, or Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes, all have been part of U.S. targeted killings from the start, and continue with the CIA’s tactic of staggered drone strikes to kill rescuers of initial victims. The Obama administration makes the false choice that kinetic counterterrorism options are either “large, intrusive military deployments” or drone strikes (although some signature strikes have been conducted with cruise missiles). Or, as former CIA official Henry Crumpton—who, according to his memoir, authorized the first U.S. drone strike on October 20, 2001, in Afghanistan—crudely described the dichotomy: “Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today.” However, people have the right to disagree with the ethical and moral tradeoffs of how drone strikes are currently conducted, and the unwillingness of the Obama administration to discuss them, as well as Congress’ reticence to question them. After ten years of signature strikes, isn’t this a debate worth having?

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