Assassination as Foreign Policy

The Intercept has a new series on drone warfare out now, called The Drone Papers. I’ll share some of the highlights from the first installment, to the extent something so grim can have “highlights.”

From The Assassination Complex:

While every president since Gerald Ford has upheld an executive order banning assassinations by U.S. personnel, Congress has avoided legislating the issue or even defining the word “assassination.” This has allowed proponents of the drone wars to rebrand assassinations with more palatable characterizations, such as the term du jour, “targeted killings.”

The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret slides that provides a window into the inner workings of the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations at a key time in the evolution of the drone wars — between 2011 and 2013. The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides.

“This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source said.

Additional documents on high-value kill/capture operations in Afghanistan buttress previous accounts of how the Obama administration masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets.

Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects. They also highlight the futility of the war in Afghanistan by showing how the U.S. has poured vast resources into killing local insurgents, in the process exacerbating the very threat the U.S. is seeking to confront.

The “find, fix, finish” doctrine that has fueled America’s post-9/11 borderless war is being refined and institutionalized. Whether through the use of drones, night raids, or new platforms yet to be unleashed, these documents lay bare the normalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. counterterrorism policy.

The system for creating baseball cards and targeting packages, according to the source, depends largely on intelligence intercepts and a multi-layered system of fallible, human interpretation. “It isn’t a surefire method,” he said. “You’re relying on the fact that you do have all these very powerful machines, capable of collecting extraordinary amounts of data and information,” which can lead personnel involved in targeted killings to believe they have “godlike powers.”

The documents acknowledge that using metadata from phones and computers, as well as communications intercepts, is an inferior method of finding and finishing targeted people. They described SIGINT capabilities in these unconventional battlefields as “poor” and “limited.” Yet such collection, much of it provided by foreign partners, accounted for more than half the intelligence used to track potential kills in Yemen and Somalia.

Within the special operations community, the source said, the internal view of the people being hunted by the U.S. for possible death by drone strike is: “They have no rights. They have no dignity. They have no humanity to themselves. They’re just a ‘selector’ to an analyst. You eventually get to a point in the target’s life cycle that you are following them, you don’t even refer to them by their actual name.” This practice, he said, contributes to “dehumanizing the people before you’ve even encountered the moral question of ‘is this a legitimate kill or not?’”

… documents … show that between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.

The mentality reflected in the documents on the assassination programs is: “This process can work. We can work out the kinks. We can excuse the mistakes. And eventually we will get it down to the point where we don’t have to continuously come back … and explain why a bunch of innocent people got killed.”

The American public has been led to believe that the drone program is necessary for our national security, that targets are very carefully selected, and marked for death on the basis of presenting an imminent threat to the US and/or our interests. It may be popularly imagined as a fairly small program that doesn’t leave much of an impact, and that the people being killed are overwhelmingly terrorists too dangerous to bring to trial.

The reality is that anywhere from 2500-4000 people have been killed, to date, in such strikes, most of them civilians who never posed any threat to this country or our allies. Every last person killed has been denied due process and even basic human dignity. Target selection is overly reliant on complex parsing of data that is prone to manipulation, omission, and confusion. That there is a lengthy process involved in narrowing down targets is supposed to be reassuring, but as information is distilled into more concise forms as it moves up the chain of command, any hope of additional verification is lost. The high-level approvals can’t amount to anything more than a rubber stamp, given the information they have to work with.

The Obama administration must also be held accountable for the extent to which it has stepped up drone warfare. This is not an issue that can be laid at the feet of the neoconservative Bush administration, not when the subsequent Democratic executive has taken these efforts to the next level. This administration seems to view drone warfare–more correctly, extrajudicial assassination–as an effective tool for promoting US national security and foreign policy goals, as if there is a clear set of good guys and bad guys, and if only we can identify and blow up the bad guys, our troubles will simply melt away.

Thus far, the opposite has been proven: with hundreds of innocent civilians slain by this program, we can only create more enemies.

Ever since the September 11th attacks, our attitude and political approach has been to identify and kill terrorists, rather than seek out and correct the generators of terrorism. Until we make an earnest effort to do the latter, our “war on terror” has no hope of ending.

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James
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Assassination as Foreign Policy

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