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

The Truth About U.S. Kill Lists

Senator John McCain speaks on the floor of Congress (Hyungwon Kang/Courtesy Reuters).

June 6, 2012

Senator John McCain speaks on the floor of Congress (Hyungwon Kang/Courtesy Reuters).
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This morning, the headline of a New York Times article read: “Senators to Open Inquiry Into ‘Kill List’ and Iran Security Leaks.” The article quotes Senator John McCain on the Senate floor yesterday decrying the release of classified information on U.S. drone and cyber operations:

“Such disclosures can only undermine similar ongoing or future operations and, in this sense, compromise national security. For this reason, regardless of how politically useful these leaks may be to the president, they have to stop.”

The article spurred a flurry of statements from across the U.S. government. This morning, when asked whether the White House should be allowed to confirm al-Qaeda officials killed by CIA drone strikes, McCain replied: “I think for example the elimination of these individuals is perfectly unclassified information and is important information.” The Pentagon spokesperson meanwhile refused to acknowledge whether a drone strike took place at all: “As you know, we don’t talk about the specifics the counterterrorism operations, so I’m not going to be able to confirm those press reports.” Elsewhere, Secretary of Defense Panetta acknowledged: “We are fighting a war in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas], we are fighting a war against terrorism.”

The Senate hearings spearheaded by Senator McCain will reportedly investigate, in part, the CIA and U.S. military “kill lists” of suspected terrorists and militants. Like other recently-published “revelations” about U.S. targeted killings policies, these disclosures are nothing new. An article by Barton Gellman in the Washington Post on December 19, 2001, revealed—for the first time—the existence of a kill list. In his overview of the Clinton administration’s counterterrorism strategies in response to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, Gellman wrote the following:

Immediately after the embassy bombings, he issued a "finding" under the 1974 Hughes-Ryan Amendment enabling intelligence agencies to fund covert operations against bin Laden. The finding’s primary directive was to track and capture the al Qaeda leader, though it authorized use of lethal force in the attempt. Within months Clinton amended the finding three times, using a form of presidential authority known as a Memorandum of Notification. Each was classified as sensitive compartmented information, Top Secret/Codeword…

The first change, almost immediate, was to broaden the authority of U.S. officers or their recruited agents to use lethal force, enabling them to engage bin Laden and the fighters around him without any prospect of taking him into custody….

Clinton’s second Memorandum of Notification expanded the target of the covert campaign. It named a handful of close lieutenants -- sources said fewer than 10 -- to be captured or killed if found separately from bin Laden….

Berger and Tenet brought Clinton a third Memorandum of Notification. Clinton signed off on direct authority to shoot down private aircraft in which bin Laden traveled. Because such a flight would probably be deemed civil aviation in international law, and people unconnected to bin Laden might die, this was regarded in the White House as a significant step.

Additional information about these three memos appear in the 2004 9/11 Commission Report (pp. 131-133); Steve Coll’s 2004 masterpiece, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (pp. 423-428); President Clinton’s My Life (p. 804); Richard Clarke’s 2004, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (pp. 203-204); and Phillip Shennon’s 2008, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (pp. 357-360). Elsewhere, I’ve written about where four other kill lists were first openly reported.

If the Senate is serious about getting to the bottom of this most recent “leak,” it would do well to hire some historians and interview former Clinton administration officials. More broadly, the recent uproar calls into question U.S. government officials who seemingly cherry-pick among information to publicly disclose, blurring the lines between what is deemed classified and unclassified. It is impossible for the Obama administration to continue to sidestep disclosure, transparency, and oversight by claiming that U.S. drone operations in Pakistan and Yemen are “covert.” At the end of the day, however, it is long past time for Congress to exercise their constitutional authority and investigate America’s surgical, lethal approach to fighting suspected terrorists.

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