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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You Might Have Missed: Drones, Targeted Killings, and National Security Threats

by Micah Zenko
September 7, 2012

President Obama makes calls in the Oval Office in Washington, DC (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). President Obama makes calls in the Oval Office in Washington, DC (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).

Interview with President Obama,” Fox 19, September 6, 2012.

Q: Well let me ask then also about the so-called presidential kill list that has gotten a lot of attention…and on that list have been U.S. citizens who have not been afforded trial, including Anwar al-Awlaki. How do you as president and any president for that matter, regardless of party or person, utilize that power to assassinate U.S. citizens?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, you’re basing this basing this on reports in the news that have never been confirmed by me and I don’t talk about our national security decisions in that way. More broadly though, 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. And that’s why not it’s just bin Laden but a whole tier of al-Qaeda leadership has been taken off the field. And that is part of what has allowed us to now begin to transition out of Afghanistan, to begin to bring our troops home. We’re going to have to be vigilant for the foreseeable future when it comes to terrorists, but we have to do so in a way that is consistent with the laws of war, with international law. That is something that we’ve always abided by, but beyond that I probably can’t comment on something as specific as what you’ve just mentioned.

(3PA: President Obama could comment on this crucial matter if he chose. The president has the authority to declassify anything that he wants, as spelled out in Executive Order 13526. It is remarkable that Obama is unwilling to answer this question since thirty-three months have passed since he first authorized the killing of a U.S. citizen, twenty-seven months since the Office of Legal Counsel memo that justified that targeted killing was completed, and eleven months since Anwar al-Awlaki was killed.)


Interview: Obama Reflects on Drone Warfare,” CNN Security Clearance, September 5, 2012.

Q: My question to you is do you personally decide who is targeted and what are your criteria if you do for the use of lethal force?

OBAMA: I’ve got to be a little careful here, there are classified issues and a lot of what you read in the press that purport to be accurate aren’t always accurate. What is absolutely true is that my first job, my most sacred duty, as president and commander in chief is to keep the American people safe.

(3PA: Actually, this is not the first job of the U.S. president. Article II, section I of the U.S. Constitution states: “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will do the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”)

And what that means is that we’ve brought a whole bunch of tools to bear to go after al-Qaeda and those who would attack Americans. Drones are one tool that we use and our criteria for using them is very tight and very strict. It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws, it has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative, it has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward with some sort of operational plot against the United States, and this is an example of where I think there has been some misreporting. Our preference is always to capture if we can because we can gather intelligence, but a lot of the terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones, operate in very remote regions and it’s very difficult to capture them.

And we’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties. And in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there will be civilian casualties involved. So we have an extensive process with a lot of checks and a lot of eyes looking at it. Obviously as president, ultimately I am responsible for decisions made by the administration. But I think what the American people need to do is the seriousness with which we take the responsibility to keep them safe, but also the seriousness with which we take the need for us to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.

Q: Sir, do you personally approve the targets?

OBAMA: You know, I can’t get too deeply into how these things work. But as I said, as commander in chief ultimately I am responsible for the process that we’ve set up to make sure that folks who are out to kill Americans, that we are able to disable them before they carry out those plots.

Q: Are the standards different when the target is American?

OBAMA: I think there is no doubt that when an American has made [the] decision to affiliate itself with al-Qaeda and target fellow Americans that there is a legal justification for us to try to stop them from carrying out plots. What is also true is that as an American citizen they are subject to the protections of the Constitution and due process.

Q: Finally on this topic, even Brennan said that some governments struggle with this. Do you struggle with this policy?

OBAMA: Oh, absolutely. Look, I think that a president who doesn’t struggle with issues of war and peace and fighting terrorism and the difficulties of dealing with an opponent who has no rules, that is something that you have to struggle with because, if you don’t, it’s very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means. And that’s not been our tradition, that’s not who we are as a country. Our most powerful tool over the long term to reduce the terrorist threat is to live up to our values, and to shape public opinion not just here but around the world that senseless violence is not a way to resolve political differences. And so it is very important the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about “are we doing the right thing,” “are we abiding by rule of law,” “are we abiding by due process,” and then set up structures and institutional checks so that you avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we’re not being true to who we are.

(3PA: For my thoughts on this Obama dissembling, see my comments to Wired’s Danger Room.)


Hakim Almasmari, “Suspected U.S. Drone Strikes Kills Civilians in Yemen, Officials Say,” CNN, September 4, 2012.

Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) – A U.S. drone strike targeting al Qaeda suspects in Yemen killed 13 civilians, including three women, three security officials in the restive Middle Eastern country said.

“This was one of the very few times when our target was completely missed. It was a mistake, but we hope it will not hurt our anti-terror efforts in the region,” a senior Yemeni Defense Ministry official told CNN…

Residents are not denying the existence of al Qaeda elements in their region but say that misdirected strikes work in favor of the militant group, helping them recruit new operatives.

“I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake,” said Nasr Abdullah, an activist in the district of the attack. “This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”


Leslie H. Gelb, “Ryan Crocker: America’s Diplomatic Superstar Speaks Out,” The Daily Beast, September 3, 2012.

So many situations around the world could be termed “problems from hell” that it becomes difficult to parse out “which are vital national-security threats, and which are just messy?” he reflects. If it’s a real threat, Crocker wants to know “What’s our plan?” He’s seen few plans. He’s seen a deadly combination of inexperience and political pressure to “just do something,” which has driven many an American politician to advocate for what he calls “ill-conceived military intervention abroad.”


Don’t Drone On,” The Economist, September 1, 2012.

Yet despite the killing of several al-Qaeda leaders by drones, jihadist attacks have increased. Last month a suicide-bomber killed at least 40 people at a funeral in Jaar, a town in the southern province of Abyan that was taken over by al-Qaeda for several months earlier this summer before being recaptured by government forces in June. Although the funeral was attended by a tribal leader opposed to al-Qaeda, it was the first such attack to target civilians rather than members of Yemen’s armed forces.


Maria Aib-Habib, “SEALs Battle for Hearts, Minds, and Speedy Paychecks,” Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2012.

“Nations are really good at starting wars and really bad at ending them. There will always be a political settlement needed,” [Cmdr. Mike Hayes, the commander of Special Operations Task Force South East] said of the reintegration process. “My hope is if we get this right, it’s a kernel, and it spreads.”

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    Drone strikes may end up being employed against “domestic terrorists.” Even political opposition can come under that category, losely defined as it is. The entire electorate has been cleverly separated from the the formation of public policy in a multitude of ways. The penalty for protesting this situation would be to be classified as a domestic terrorist and made the target of a drone strike.

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