Obama’s Secret Kill List

A must-read NYT article discusses Obama’s oversight of the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The U.S. President personally approves the “high value targets” that circulate every Tuesday in a counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room: a “nominations” process that is unprecedented in U.S. history.

This secret nominations process, an invention of the Obama administration, starts with “more than 100” members of the government’s national security apparatus gathering to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies, before recommending to the President who should die. It is run by the Pentagon. “A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan”. The nominations then go to Obama for the President’s personal approval.

John Brennan, a fierce ex-CIA veteran that served in the agency for 25 years, is Obama’s biggest ally (and perhaps architect) in the process. Critics say his penchant for secret killings unduly influences national security strategy.

According to the NYT, “Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy”.

The article discusses the “morality” of the administration’s shadow wars, and the personal decisions made by Obama–described as a “realist” rather than ideologue who has done little to change the path trodden by Bush-era counter-terrorist strategists.

One source of controversy over the extremely low death counts given by U.S. officials in the drone strikes is a result of how combatants are counted: “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. Guilt by association — the logic of “signature strikes”.

Signature strikes target training camps and “suspicious” compound areas by identifying suspect patterns of life. Some in the State Department claim the criteria the CIA uses for identifying a terrorist signature are too lax. “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official”. Obama was initially reluctant to consent to such strikes outside of Pakistan. But they soon spread to Yemen. “Today, the Defense Department can target suspects in Yemen whose names they do not know. Officials say the criteria are tighter than those for signature strikes, requiring evidence of a threat to the United States, and they have even given them a new name — TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. But the details are a closely guarded secret…”

The drone strikes are criticised, additionally, for their “take no prisoners” approach. Only one enemy combatant has been captured since Obama came into office. “Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee.

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