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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Institutionalizing America’s Targeted Killing Program

by Micah Zenko
October 24, 2012

A U.S. unmanned drone hovers over the tarmac (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). A U.S. unmanned drone hovers over the tarmac (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


In today’s Washington Post, Greg Miller delivers a comprehensive, forward-looking, must-read report on the Obama administration’s vast and expanding targeted killing program. In the piece, Miller provides three significant details that were previously unreported.

First, among senior Obama administration officials, “there is broad consensus [targeted killings] are likely to be extended at least another decade.” As a senior official is flippantly quoted: “We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’”

Second, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) maintains a “disposition matrix” that attempts to harmonize the CIA and JSOC kill lists, presents strategies to kill or capture individuals who appear on those lists, and describes what is required by U.S. government agencies and foreign partners should targeting information become available. Although the role played by the NCTC was previously unknown, it is consistent with the six primary missions (see page 37) established in its mandate by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

Third, the process of vetting and selecting individuals for targeted killings has been further narrowed and concentrated within the office of John Brennan—whose role as the “priest whose blessing has become indispensable” to Obama and misleading statements I have written about extensively. According to Miller’s article, Brennan ended the video conferences run by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that discussed revisions to the kill lists because “Brennan thought the process shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes.” This is savvy power-grab by Brennan, although—in my experience—trigger-pullers possess considerably less enthusiasm for killing people than civilians sitting in the basement of the White House.

After following this program closely for the past half-dozen years, I have stopped being surprised by how far and how quickly the United States has moved from the international norm against assassinations or “extrajudicial killings.” As I wrote in my book on discrete military operations, opposition to assassination was widely held and endured throughout the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations through 1999 for the following reasons:

Assassinations ran counter to well-established international norms, and were prohibited under both treaty and customary international law. Third, weakening the international norm against assassinations could result in retaliatory killings of American leaders, who are more vulnerable as a consequence of living in a relatively open society. Fourth, the targeted killing of suspected terrorists or political leaders was generally considered an ineffective foreign policy tool. An assassination attempt that failed could be counterproductive, in that it would create more legal and diplomatic problems than it was worth. An attempt that succeeded, meanwhile, would likely do little to diminish the long-term threat from an enemy state or group. Finally, the secretive and treacherous aspect of targeted killings was considered antithetical to the moral and ethical precepts of the United States.

Miller’s report underscores the cementing of the mindset and apparent group-think among national security policymakers that the routine and indefinite killing of suspected terrorists and nearby military-age males is ethical, moral, legal, and effective (for now). Moreover, it demonstrates the increasing institutionalization—“codifying and streamlining the process” as Miller describes it—of executive branch power to use lethal force without any meaningful checks and balances. Recent history demonstrates that the executive branch does not willingly provide transparency and a plausible defense of its national security decisions, or cede any of its incrementally accrued powers, unless Congress, courts, or the American people care. Indeed, it is notable that Miller does not find officials worried about the legality, congressional oversight, transparency, or precedent setting for future state and nonstate powers wielding armed drones.

Having spoken with dozens of officials across both administrations, I am convinced that those serving under President Bush were actually much more conscious and thoughtful about the long-term implications of targeted killings than those serving under Obama. In part, this is because more Bush administration officials were affected by the U.S. Senate Select Committee investigation, led by Senator Frank Church, that implicated the United States in assassination plots against foreign leaders—including at least eight separate plans to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro—and President Ford’s Executive Order 11905: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”

Recently, I spoke to a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program. To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating: “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Javed Mirj

    –It really is like swathing flies —

    So pathetic and inhuman.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    Kill vs. capture

    The NATO military command, ISAF, primarily the US military, has apparently changed its procedures in Afghanistan. Whereas it formerly killed suspected terrorists, it now captures them. At least that is what I have surmised from reading ISAF daily reports.

    While ISAF kills people involved in attacks, it captures suspects.

    Here’s the most recent one (excerpts).

    KABUL, Afghanistan (Oct. 24, 2012) — Afghan and coalition forces yesterday confirmed the arrest of Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rahman in Kunduz province Oct. 19. . .An Afghan and coalition security force arrested a Taliban leader in Logar province today. . . .Afghan and coalition forces today confirmed the arrest of a Taliban leader in Kandahar province yesterday. . . .An Afghan and coalition force arrested three insurgents during a security operation in search of a Taliban leader in Helmand province today.

    Presumably these are the same kinds of people that Obama is summarily killing in Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries. So there is an obvious incongruity between the US president killing suspects in several countries and his military force capturing them in a designated war zone.

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    This all goes back to the Global War on Terror where terrorism is an act of war and not a crime. Different people have had different views.

    The National Security Strategy of the United States in fact treats terrorism as a crime. “Legal Aspects of Countering Terrorism: The increased risk of terrorism necessitates a capacity to detain and interrogate suspected violent extremists, but that framework must align with our laws to be effective and sustainable. When we are able, we will prosecute terrorists in Federal courts or in reformed military commissions that are fair, legitimate, and effective.”

    And in Obama’s foreword: “In all that we do, we will advocate for and advance the basic rights upon which our Nation was founded, and which peoples of every race and region have made their own.”

  • Posted by Stephen Real

    US and UK drone wings smaller/better smart weapons that are a 100 pounds or less too eliminate civilian casualties too an absolute minimum.
    The research arm has some neat models but these single man drone weapons option should be on the front line.

  • Posted by Sativanon

    I wrote a short simple essay on drone ethics. Too many civilian casualties. http://whenprophecyfails.blogspot.com/

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    “Too many civilian casualties.” Really? Who knows?
    *There is no legal basis for assassinating anyone.*

  • Posted by Bleu dumont

    I was in the states and stayed longer than i should but at least i was smart enough to come back on y own I am a targeted individual and have witnesses to this Im Canadian

  • Posted by Thomas McCabe

    This matter is very straightforward.

    1. Al Qaeda Central (and its Arabian Peninsula, North African, Iraqi, and Solmai branches/affiliates) have made very clear that they intend to launch further mass-casualty attacks against the US and Europe, and have continued to try to do so.

    2. One of the main reasons they have not been successful at doing so is because the drone attacks are thinning their ranks and forcing them to keep their heads down.

    3. Considering that they have at least very substantial–if not major–recuperative powers if given the chance to build back, we obviously need to remain on the offensive against them. Unless something better comes along, that means drone attacks.
    4. If you want to look at what mass casualty attacks look like, take a look at what Assad is doing with his artillery and air strikes in Syria or the way the Russians fought in Chechnya. There is absolutely no sign the drones are being used that way. Any innocent civilian causualties are unfortunate casualties of war.

    Which part of this is too complicated for the critics to understand?

    It would be very nice if the world was safe for people who thought like the critics. Unfortunately, it’s not.

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