Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Targeted Killings and Unanswered Questions

by Micah Zenko
May 1, 2012

John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, speaks at a White House press briefing (Courtesy Reuters/Kevin Lemarque). John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, speaks at a White House press briefing (Courtesy Reuters/Kevin Lemarque).


“As soon as they tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they tell me ‘surgical,’ I head for the bunker.” General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, September 1992.


“It’s this surgical precision—the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qa’ida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it—that makes [drones] so essential.” John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, April 30, 2012.


Yesterday, Brennan acknowledged the obvious in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center: “The United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.” For commentators and analysts, including myself, who have called for the Obama administration to abandon the eight-year absurdity of so-called “covert” targeted killings, Brennan’s comments are welcomed and long overdue. The Obama administration deserves credit for finally recognizing that its position of false secrecy was no longer defensible or sustainable, given the increase in targeted killings since President Obama entered the White House—roughly three hundred and counting—and their centrality to U.S. counterterrorism strategies.

Brennan’s speech is the product of an ongoing debate within the Obama administration regarding its targeted killings policies. According to some U.S. officials, the primary concern is not revealing operational details, but that open debate over drones could lead to political pressure in the United States or host countries that could ultimately restrict the program. As a senior U.S. official noted recently: “The big mistake was the administration—I did try to warn them—that once you put [drone strikes] on the table, it will only get worse. Sure enough (Pakistan) grabbed it, and they’ve run with it and now it’s the centerpiece of their negotiations.”

An important indicator of the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability will be how U.S. officials address targeted killings in the near-term. Three months ago, the president “revealed” some targeted killings in a response to a question from “Evan from Brooklyn” during a Google+ “Hang Out:” “Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] going after al-Qaeda suspects.” The next day, White House spokesperson Jay Carney spoke at length about U.S. counterterrorism uses of drones as “exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted.” However, when a reporter asked Carney to expand on whether the president’s statement was “purposeful,” he responded, “I’m not going to discuss broadly or specifically supposed covert programs.” And drones were swept back under the rug.

As the “covert” designation persisted, U.S. officials continued to be nonresponsive or misleading when discussing targeted killings. In a few of the more egregious examples, this includes: the director of the FBI not responding to the question, “Does the federal government have the ability to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?”; the unwillingness of the attorney general to admit the existence of legal memoranda that provides the legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens; and the Senate minority leader’s professed faith in the due process involved in targeting U.S. citizens, after admitting that he was unaware of the process itself.

Like previous speeches by Brennan, Attorney General Eric Holder, and the senior legal officials of the State Department, Pentagon, and CIA, which all elliptically referred to targeted killings, yesterday’s speech raised more questions than answers. Can children be targets? Since Brennan sidestepped a question on “signature strikes,” how do such anonymous attacks square with what he referred to as “individual members of al-Qa’ida?” If “it is our preference to capture suspected terrorists whenever feasible,” why are capture operations exceedingly rare and kill missions increasingly common? If “we’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and eliminated from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas,” how will targeted killings achieve that goal?

Meanwhile, journalists should press policymakers to provide straight answers about targeted killings. Citizens should demand that their congressional representatives—particularly those who serve on the foreign relations or armed services committees—hold hearings with U.S. officials to explore the increasing use of armed drones. As targeted killing policies inch out of the shadows, we deserve answers that officials should now be authorized to provide.

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