“We have a disposition problem” – former U.S. counterterrorism official, 2012
Greg Miller from the Washington Post has a must-read on the Obama Administration’s construction of a secret database for administering life and death. For the past two years, officials have been creating a ‘next-generation targeting list’ called a ‘disposition matrix’. This matrix contains the names of suspects listed against the resources that have been marshaled to hunt them down. The targets include those beyond the reach of American drones.
This management tool suggests the continuation of what Derek Gregory calls an ‘everywhere war‘ by bureaucratic means, as traditional ground troops take a backseat to special operations and drone bombardments.
One of the first such kill lists was created under a Presidential Finding by George Bush’s administration in September 2001. But these spreadsheets are now a permanent feature of American security strategy. According to Miller, “White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced”.
Other developments that are enrolled in this transformation of the ‘kill chain’ include:
1. A more paramilitarized CIA, whose remit extends far beyond its core ‘intelligence gathering’ prerogatives. The current CIA Director David Petraeus (himself parachuted in from the military, and author of a famous COIN manual), recently pushed for an expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones by 10, from its current inventory of 30-35.
2. A more integrated JSOC. The military’s special operations force (which TomDispatch estimates is staffed by around 60,00o troops), is now central in executing raids across the Horn of Africa. Miller notes that “JSOC also has established a secret targeting center across the Potomac River from Washington”.
The U.S. operates multiple drone programs, from acknowledged orbits across Afghanistan and Libya, to classified flights over Iran. Strikes against al-Qaeda are carried out under secret lethal programs involving both CIA and JSOC. The Disposition Matrix was developed by the NCTC under Michael Leiter to augment these overlapping kill lists. The product is a single, evolving database in which ‘biographies, locations, known associates, and affiliated organizations are all catalogued. So are strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols’.
In shutting down the Bush-era network of black-sites, Obama’s counterterrorism policy has essentially shifted from capture to kill (and ask questions later). “We had a disposition problem,” said a former U.S. counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix.
The database is meant to map out contingencies, creating an operational menu that spells out each agency’s role in case a suspect surfaces in an unexpected spot. “If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” the former official said. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”
The blueprint also represents somewhat of a living contradiction; a struggle to manage its own excesses.
Al-Qaeda may indeed have ‘metastasized’ across East and North Africa, moving from the tribal areas of Pakistan to new fronts in Somalia, Yemen, and North Africa, but such a geographic ‘displacement’ is an outcome of the very expansion of U.S. power projection. This cat-and-mouse game shows no signs of ever reaching a conclusion. “The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”
The Keeper of Criteria
As Miller notes, this emphasis on targeted killing represents a psychological ‘normalization’. During the Clinton cabinet, officials worried and debated fiercely whether or not eliminating bin Laden was legal (and ethical), as Steve Coll’s ‘Ghost Wars’ captures excellently. Now, targeted killing has become routine that the Obama administration is seeking ways to codify and streamline it. In 2012 the White House scrapped the system in which the Pentagon and the National Security Council had overlapping roles in scrutinizing kill lists. Now the system functions like a ‘funnel’, starting with half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of bureaucratic review until revisions hit Brennan’s desk and are then passed on to the president.
Video-conference calls previously chaired by Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have ended. “Officials said Brennan thought the process shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes”. Under this ‘lethal bureaucrat’, the NCTC has become the de facto targeting hub. While the CIA, JSOC, and USCOM have hundreds of analysts and far more resources, the center has a key function “It is the keeper of the criteria”, a former U.S. counterterrorism official said.
The NCTC is in charge of culling names from al-Qaeda databases for targeting lists based on White House criteria. The lists are reviewed at a regular three-month interval during meetings at the NCTC headquarters, and involve analysts from other organizations such as the CIA, the State Department, and JSOC. Names are submitted to a panel of NSC officials chaired by Brennan.
Obama himself approves the criteria for lists and signs off on drone strikes outside of Pakistan, where the CIA has legal authority.
The review process is ‘compressed’, notes Miller, when the CIA or JSOC has a short window of time to strike. This approach also applies to development of criteria for ‘signature strikes’, which allow the CIA and JSOC to eliminate a target based on its ‘pattern of life’ or suspicious behavior, even when the name and identity of such a person is unknown.
For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.
How many targets? Officials said the kill list in Pakistan numbers some 10 al-Qaeda targets, with many strikes now directed at the Haqqani network. In Yemen, the number of militants is estimated to range from 10 to 15. As Miller notes, in focusing on these bureaucratic refinements more pressing questions on the strategy have remained off the table – for example, doubts about the drone campaign are almost nonexistent.
“When we institutionalize certain things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold that makes it harder to cross back.” – Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center
“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,” Pillar added. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and cons to the methods we use.”
This ‘bureaucratic present‘, while hardly emerging from a historical vacuum, does suggest the changing face of state violence: the decentralization of targeted killings across the globe and the simultaneous centralization of state power in the executive branch of government. From soldier, to special op, to lethal bureaucrat, this complicated and evolving geopolitical picture, one underwritten by lawfare and Orwellian ‘accounting speak’, is very much a permanent fixture. Bureaucracies are, by their very nature, hostile to change.