Outside of websites such as Antiwar.com, there has been remarkably little commentary over the issue of the White House–managed kill lists, which played no part in the election but will nevertheless continue to be a keystone of security policy in the new administration in Washington. Details on how the lists were developed and maintained surfaced in the media on Oct. 23 in an article in the Washington Post which described how the White House has decided that targeted assassinations will continue to be necessary for the next decade. The article provoked some negative commentary in the usual places, but little in the way of genuine outrage. In a saner world, one might even have expected that extralegal targeted killing could have been used in a partisan fashion by the Republicans to highlight Obama’s dismantling of constitutional and legal protections, but Mitt Romney voiced nary a word of criticism, suggesting that he too sees death by government fiat as an essential tool against terrorism and approves of what the president is doing.
The assassination by drone and special ops teams was a program initiated by President George W. Bush but it appears that it was not actually made operational until a former community organizer who promised change named Barack Obama entered the White House. Citing the difficulty of dealing with the Guantanamo prisoners, Obama apparently determined that it would be better to kill possible terrorists than to go through the tactical complications and extra expense entailed in trying to detain them and risk a trial in a court of law.
I would suggest that what media attention there has been has focused far too narrowly on the lists maintained by the White House and National Security Council that include American citizens. The reality is that kill lists have metastasized across the government to include the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and are symptomatic of a transformation of U.S. foreign and defense policies. They have all become part of a ten year government created master plan to confront Islamic fundamentalism worldwide using drones and special operations teams, without little or no consideration for the local conditions that have led to the rise of religious extremism nor any concern for the consequences unleashed by the American interventions.
We are seeing a series of wars unprecedented in scope that are carefully being disguised as non-wars, or, at best, limited objective constabulary actions, while the definition of terrorist has become increasingly elastic, permitting the listing of anyone who supports in any way or condones the activities of any group viewed as threatening to American interests. The CIA, which has recently requested a sharp increase in the number of drones it operates, is being transformed from an intelligence service into a paramilitary organization. It uses the unmanned aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, and in Africa because those areas are not officially war zones for the U.S. The Agency engages in “plausible denial,” refusing to confirm that it is involved in any such activity, which enables the White House to wrap a shroud of secrecy around the attacks. Even if the plausible denial argument has, however, been rendered somewhat thin by repeated references to drone operations made by the administration itself, the CIA is also frequently the instrument of choice because it can operate by government fiat and is not required to go through the bureaucratic hurdles and congressional oversight that the Pentagon must undergo to carry out operations. The military is consequently most engaged in places like Afghanistan, where it attacks the Taliban and other targets that are considered to be part and parcel of an actual war situation.
The White House, CIA, and Pentagon all require intelligence information to generate targets that are to be killed, driving the bureaucratization of the process, and that is where the true weakness of the monster that has been created lies. This intelligence collection has morphed into a process which the administration has dubbed its “disposition matrix,” which pulls together all available information on potential targets while also identifying available resources ready to “dispose” of them. The information collected on targets flows to and from a newly created command center in northern Virginia run by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), to the CIA and the National Counter Terrorism Center, and to the National Security Council ops center in the White House. The central resource, maintained by the NCTC, is a constantly evolving and expanding data base that basically tells you everything you want to know about who the enemy is, to include the best way to find and kill him. It also establishes linkages to all of the enemy’s friends and neighbors, just in case you should decide to add them to the list at some future point. Two weeks after American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone in Yemen his sixteen year old son Abdulrahman was also killed, according to Obama adviser Robert Gibbs, because “he should have a far more responsible father.” The new set of interlocking bureaucracies has created both a mechanism and an imperative to add new names to the list, meaning that identifying and killing designated enemies sometimes based on little or no evidence has now become an everyday function of the United States government.
The NCTC relies on the worldwide data collection efforts managed by the National Security Agency which will eventually feed into an enormous computer complex that is still under construction in Bluffdale, Utah. U.S. citizens are not immune from the ever widening net information collection process as any establishment of a linkage, no matter how tenuous, can lead to inclusion in the pervasive computer-driven searches conducted by the government. Data on Americans can now be collected at will and retained for up to five years without having to demonstrate any reason for doing so.
As for who is actually a terrorist and deserving of a death sentence from a Washington bureaucrat, it should be observed that capabilities of the United States intelligence agencies vary from region to region and the ability to develop reliable information is not always a given. This is true even in places where considerable resources are in place, as Benghazi demonstrated two months ago. The long list of hellfire missile victims that has included wedding parties, farmers, travelers, or people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time provides testimony that the intelligence used to identify and kill suspected terrorists is often either erroneous or impossible to corroborate. So basically Washington is operating a vast killing machine, almost robotic in its technical efficiency, that actually rests on the garbage-in-garbage-out principle, meaning that there is no quality control regarding the potential victims. Any bit of information, be it gossip or even slander, can wind up in a file. Anyone can wind up on a list for disposition with no way to challenge the information that can lead to a death warrant. If the Obama legacy will be death from the skies, as it surely should be, it ought to strengthen the resolve in all of us to resist the kind of nation that we have become over the past eleven years and to reject the kind of leadership that has led us down this road.