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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State of the Union Defends Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
February 13, 2013

U.S. president Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union on February 12, 2013 (Charles Dharapak/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. president Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union on February 12, 2013 (Charles Dharapak/Courtesy Reuters).


Last night, President Obama’s State of the Union address included the following passage:

“Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.”

“As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

As someone who has focused on the U.S. policies on targeted killings for the past six years, to hear these words from the president was remarkable. Just over one year ago—January 30, 2012—in response to a question from “Evan in Brooklyn, New York” during a Google+ Hang Out, Obama revealed: “Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] going after al-Qaeda suspects.” Obama continued:

“I want to make sure that the people understand actually that drones have not caused a huge amount of civilian casualties…I think there is this perception somehow that we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly…It’s not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions.” [It’s technically people in several rooms, who convene by video conference.]

The White House deserves credit for its overdue realization—slowly learned by the Bush administration regarding warrantless wiretapping, third-country renditions, and torture. However, Obama continued to promote the false dichotomy underpinning his administration’s defense of targeted killings: counterterrorism strategies must include kinetic military force, and the choice is between Operation Iraqi Freedom and drone strikes.

The “direct action” to which Obama refers is defined in the Pentagon’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms as “short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or diplomatically sensitive environments and which employ specialized military capabilities to seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover, or damage designated targets.”

The White House has used this phrase since June, when it obliquely reported U.S. military strikes in Yemen and Somalia in the mandated biannual War Powers Resolution reporting. Presumably, this only applies to military operations, since Obama’s failure to mention Pakistan—where over 85 percent of all U.S. nonbattlefield targeted killings have occurred—was no accident. Maintaining the myth that such operations in Pakistan are covert is necessary to claim—in the face of Freedom of Information Act requests for corresponding memoranda—that the “very fact of the existence or nonexistence of such documents is itself classified.”

In addition, Obama’s declaration that the United States would go after “terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans” muddied the scope of who can be legitimately targeted. The Obama administration is careful to offer a range of adjectives to describe who can be lawfully targeted. Previous definitions include:

  • John Brennan: “Individuals who are a threat to the United States” (September 16, 2011)
  • Department of Justice: “Senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” (November 8, 2011)
  • Eric Holder: “Specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” (March 5, 2012)
  • Harold Koh: “High-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” (March 25, 2012)
  • Obama: “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” (September 6, 2012)

Obama’s “gravest threat to Americans” characterization is by far the most expansive definition for who can be killed by a U.S. official thus far. (The Oxford Dictionary defines grave as “giving cause for alarm or concern and solemn or serious.”) This does away with previous clarifying terms such as “senior” or “operational” leaders of al-Qaeda, any notion of attacks that are “imminent,” and the necessity to protect the U.S. homeland. This new and sweeping definition of who is “targetable” is troubling since it is open to interpretation by the executive branch interpretation, and was purposefully and deliberately included in a State of the Union address.

Finally, it is a stretch to say that the Obama administration has “kept Congress fully informed.” It is true that the Senate and House intelligence committees are provided information about drone strikes conducted by the CIA. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, recently revealed the scope of oversight that his committee enjoys:

“Monthly, I have my committee go to the CIA to review them. I as chairman review every single air strike that we use in the war on terror, both from the civilian and the military side when it comes to terrorist strikes. There is plenty of oversight here.”

The Senate and House armed services committees also receive briefings on drone strikes conducted by the U.S. military. However, the Senate foreign relations and House foreign affairs committees—who are supposed to provide oversight of all U.S. foreign policy—have repeatedly been refused general briefings about targeted killings by the White House, even though all relevant staffers have security clearances. As these committee members point out, it is impossible to exercise oversight over a country or region without insight into how the CIA or military conducts targeted killings. If President Obama wants to “continue to engage” with Congress, agreeing to hold closed-door briefings with these committees would be a good start.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by milan milenkovic

    President had good speech last nigh. My the biggest concern during Pr. Obama second term is still GRIDLOCK in Congress !!! Economy, unemployment, houses market depression are improving…

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    These different al-Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups which have emerged are obviously not covered by the AUMF, but the U.S. is at war with them and can kill them . . .under what authorization?

  • Posted by Don Bacon

    recent news report

    “There may come a time when the core al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 doesn’t really exist anymore,” [HASC vice-chairman Mac] Thornberry told the NDIA conference, “[but] we have not yet been successful in updating the authorization for the use of military force.”


  • Posted by RockyMtnHigh

    As a person watching from afar, I have to wonder. . . if another country chose to say ” ah, the congressmen and senetors of the USA are a clear and present danger to our country?”, how would those in the USA react to drone strikes against Congress and Senators?
    Even if the governements of say, England or France or Canada, said it was legal from their point of view, how would the USA citizen feel if General George or Williams or whatever name in the army / air force / or navy / special forces, was blown up by a drone, or a suicide bomber.
    I’m not for a moment suggesting that those that are currently being targeted for death are not deserving of death, but,,,,, and this is the point, should the USA even be doing this, given what happens on the other side of the mirror. Another country killing through drone attack, your own military or statesmen or ? ? ? ?
    Just a very systemic thought for your readers.

  • Posted by Ali omran

    We are still waiting for peaceful means to counter groups terrorism in most poor countries , the last classical methods in Afghanistan , Iraq and lately in Mali proved to be failure , the alternative is how to help people of these countries tackle poverty and famine , poverty led them helping those extremists and terrorist groups .

  • Posted by Accountability

    1. The total lack of transparency in the CIA Drone program is an affront to our Democracy

    2. John Brennan once declared no civilians were being killed and even the Obama Administration claimed civilian deaths were in the “single digits.” Both claims were lies and they knew it.

    3. Drone strikes are not investigated by the CIA so we don’t know how many civilians are killed

    4. or if the alleged militants/terrorists are planning an imminent attack on the U.S.

    5. U.S. policy was changed claiming every adult male killed by a Drone strike is a terrorist, unless after the person is killed, it is conclusively proven he was not. Such proof is impossible.

    6. For the first time in our history, the President has the power to kill anyone he declares a terrorist, anytime, anywhere in the World, be it an American, or foreigner. This policy is immoral, violates our system of checks and balances, and is dictatorial.

    7. Congress and the President (especially Obama) have gotten a free pass from the public in ever expanding Drone strikes. How can so many people (over 80% of Americans) support a policy they know absolutely nothing about?

    8. We were told that terrorists were being sent to Gitmo, yet 603 of the 775 were released after concluding they were not terrorists with many more waiting release.

    9. Killing people in Pakistan, Somalia & Yemen merely because we declare they are terrorists is unethical, illegal and immoral. It must be stopped.

    10. Targeted killing is only justifiable when lesser uses of force, such as capture, are impossible.

    11. It must take place inside of a military conflict, in self-defense, against an enemy, rather than against either an ordinary civilian or a political target.

    12. The force used must be proportional to the threat posed by the situation, and any civilian harm must be kept to a minimum.

    13. anyone targeted should be granted the opportunity to safely surrender—an option that is disturbingly unavailable to those in imminent danger of being incinerated by a missile launched from an unseen drone.

    14. Assertions by Obama administration officials, as well as by many scholars, that these operations comply with international standards are undermined by the total absence of any forms of credible transparency or verifiable accountability.

    15. The CIA’s internal control mechanisms, including its Inspector-General, have had no discernible impact; executive control mechanisms have either not been activated at all or have ignored the issue; congressional oversight has given a ‘free pass’ to the CIA in this area; judicial review has been effectively precluded; and external oversight has been reduced to media coverage which is all too often dependent on information leaked by the CIA itself.

    16. As a result, there is no meaningful domestic accountability for a burgeoning program of international killing. This in turn means that the United States cannot possibly satisfy its obligations under international law to ensure accountability for its use of lethal force, either under International Human Rights Law or International Humanitarian Law.

    17. The result is the steady undermining of the international rule of law, and the setting of legal precedents which will inevitably come back to haunt the United States before long when invoked by other states with highly problematic agendas.

    The above came from 5 mins of Google searching: Imagine what a whole congress could and should do?

    Drones that we see now are just the early part of a curve – they are the bi-planes before World War 2 and they will advance as with all other tech exponentially once there is a driving factor behind them. The problem is that this is the only chance we’ll get to think about what we’re doing with them before that rate of advancement and spread of drone tech across the entire globe speeds up past our ability to control it. Laws of conflict are from the 1940’s and need to be seriously updated to take into account Drone War. The US made a really bad start to things in the drone world by committing hundreds of war crimes using drones before laws could catch up with their use. But that is what all these reports are about – catching up. Dealing with the moral side of drone use and codifying those generally agreed normative morals into international law which will prevent countries like the US from carrying out too many war crimes in future with drones

  • Posted by Paul Buhler

    Unfortunately since the U.S. has written its own rules on the use of drones in the military and counter-terrorism arena this leaves a vacuum in international law. My question is, once other nations (or non-state actors) obtain their own drones will the U.S. government have any moral grounds to criticize the use (or abuses) of those other drone programs? And it is only a matter of time before that happens. Remember the American drone that was recovered intact in Iran (see Wikipedia, Iran-U.S. RQ-170 Incident). What happens if Iranian drones appear over the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain, or more likely, anonymous drones fire on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf or U.S. allied forces in the Middle East?

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