In a detailed and well-crafted story by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, the New York Times takes a close look today at the Obama Administration’s program of targeted killings, and finds that the president is personally running the show:
“He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”
The Times piece has the badge of an official narrative, featuring an exceptionally long list of key administration players who speak on the record and only a sprinkling of critical voices. Nevertheless, it drills straight into issues that have to this point been kept under wraps—in particular, it provides a walk-through of the “nominations” process used to decide who earns a place on the targeted-killings list:
It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.
The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.
From this point the decision-making moves to the White House, where it is essentially up to Obama: “[B]y his own insistence and guided by [John] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name,” the authors explain. “He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan—about a third of the total.”
The article also tackles the underpinnings of the CIA’s claims that there have been no, or at least very few, civilian deaths owing to drone strikes recently: “Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties. . . . 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.” We learn that this approach has been controversial within the administration, with some advisers noting that it seems close to a conclusive presumption of guilt.
This is a very important disclosure. On one hand, it clarifies the basis for the CIA’s no-collateral-damage claim. On the other, it puts the drone program on very tenuous grounds under the laws of war. The U.S. military in Iraq, for instance, has previously disciplined officers who issued rules of engagement authorizing the targeting of all military-age males. A person cannot be presumed to be a terrorist simply because he is male, of military age, and happens to be in the same village as some terrorists—he must be engaged in conduct that makes him a combatant. Applied to targeting, this presumption raises serious war-crime issues. As the Times reports, the administration is currently limiting its use to the counting of persons unintentionally killed when a legitimate target has been struck, which theoretically leads only to false information about the number of innocent civilians killed. But the distinction isn’t actually quite so clear-cut: in deciding on a strike, an estimate of collateral damage has to be included. And if all able males are deemed legitimate targets, that process is being seriously distorted.
The Times piece also considers the question of tactics versus strategy. Much of the controversy surrounding drones has swirled around the decision to target individuals, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, who have gained notoriety, and around the government’s willingness to aggressively deploy drones as a tool in the first place. Less discussed have been the broader consequences of drone assassinations:
[T]he strikes that have eviscerated Al Qaeda—just since April, there have been 14 in Yemen, and 6 in Pakistan—have also tested both men’s commitment to the principles they have repeatedly said are necessary to defeat the enemy in the long term. Drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants; in his 2010 guilty plea, Faisal Shahzad, who had tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square, justified targeting civilians by telling the judge, “When the drones hit, they don’t see children.”
Dennis C. Blair, director of national intelligence until he was fired in May 2010, said that discussions inside the White House of long-term strategy against Al Qaeda were sidelined by the intense focus on strikes. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’—reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.
Blair is correct to stress long-term strategy, and it’s a shame that the Times piece fails to develop his point further. Admiral Blair isn’t the only person raising these questions—so, too, is the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, who is mentioned in the piece as having complained that “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” and has spoken out elsewhere about the CIA’s dominance in U.S.–Pakistani relations. The current meltdown in U.S. relations with Pakistan—long considered a vital American ally in the region—is directly related to the drone campaign. The White House, focused as it is on kill data from each strike, doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the effect of heavy drone use on American relations with states in the region, nor to the broader dynamics of American operations against terrorist groups. Is a drone campaign that eliminates Al Qaeda but turns Pakistan, the nation with the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, into a bitter enemy really a success story?
With the Times account, more important details about the Obama drone program have fallen into place. The disclosures will offer solace to Obama supporters who have qualms about the program, since the administration is shown scrutinizing individual targets and avoiding strikes that would affect innocent women and children. On the other hand, the drone operators continue to make lethal misjudgments, and the government’s case for secrecy with the program looks more dubious than ever.