Obama’s Targeted Killing Strategy and Drone Strike Tactics
September 30, 2012, by Bruce Wallace, 121Contact
No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned . . . neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers. (Magna Carta)
Targeted Killing, a simple definition: attacks on suspected terrorists in other nations without judicial review.
The law is murky simply because this is a new enemy, a new international situation, and there is no historical body of law that governs the situation. This is, we know, a bit simplistic and the interpretations of international and domestic law are convoluted and, not surprisingly, quite biased. What is clear is that a) the United States Executive believes it has the right to identify and kill non-state actors who are actively engaged in attacking U.S. lives, material, and interests, or those who are aiding such people or activities, b) the Congress has expended little energy in investigating and/or challenging these beliefs, and c) the Supreme Court has shown little interest in oversight of decisions made by the Executive in these matters.
It’s not new to have the Executive make such decisions. We have been using targeting killing since the American Revolution when British officers became prime targets, to the dismay of the British who thought this activity well beyond acceptable behavior. The first example: Colonel Daniel Morgan's rifle corps targeting British officers before the Battle of Saratoga. [History.Org]
So today we find the intelligence resources, often from computer monitors in the U.S., identifying targets and the executive signing off on attacking them, with President Obama having the final say.
What’s right with targeted killing and drone strikes? After having proved the ineffectiveness and extreme costs in lives and material of ‘large footprint’ warfare against terrorists, targeted killing has become the weapon of choice. It is seen as a humane approach, and certainly it is if you compare it to Dresden. The number of innocent civilians killed is smaller that would result from traditional on the ground military operations.
There is an unfairness in historical comparisons since the threat, on in current scale, is new, and existing law is murkily applicable at best.
Because the administration is loath to be transparent about targeted killing and drone strikes it is hard to gather evidence, but reporters around the world are trying their best. London’s Bureau for Investigative Journalism estimates that as of September 2012 there have been at least 336 drone strikes in Pakistan, another 35-45 recorded in Yemen and up to nine in Somalia. “The data also records the number of deaths, which could be up to 3,247 across the three countries, including up to 852 civilians.” These numbers reflect the administrations counting all who die in the strikes as enemies unless later proven innocent (although few, if any, investigations have been carried out). Looking at the ratio of civilians to combatants it is clear that drone strikes are a relatively humane way to kill enemies. This, of course, assumes that the people designated by the U.S. Executive are, in fact, enemies.
The bottom line, from the Obama administration’s point of view: it’s efficient in terms of American lives lost, dollars spent, and hard resources expended. It is relatively humane in terms of the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths.
Contrary to popular opinion we see the entire program as problematical in many areas. Our main objection is the lack of oversight before the killings take place, especially in the cases involving signature strikes which are becoming, by far, the most common reason for targeted killings. Signature Strikes are the targeting of groups of men who bear characteristics associated with terrorism, but whose identities aren’t known. They occur when and where the behavior of a group [meeting, marching, and gathering] is used as a pretext for targeting. These determinations are primarily made by operators the U.S. watching their video screens. They do not target specific individuals and are an ominous drift from the justification of “imminent danger.” The resultant targeting of funeral processions, wedding gatherings, etc. highlight the lack of cultural understanding on the part of the operators.
The lack of legal review persists after the strikes since most are not investigated after the fact. The loss of the importance of presentation and review of evidence that an individual or group deserves to be killed is a large departure from the rule of law. These are not hot sites where imminent danger to U.S. interests is involved. There is time for review. A relatively new dictate embraced by President Obama states that all military-age males in a strike zone are combatants, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. [New York Times] While this makes the counting easy, it is as far from justice as one can get.
Further, we are broadening of the definition of ‘imminence’: President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, stated: "We are finding increasing recognition in the international community that a more flexible understanding of "imminence" may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups,
The real bottom line: Targeted killings are far beyond legal and moral activities. The blatant disregard for review of evidence alone puts them in a special category outside jurisprudence. The immorality of mass killings of people whose ‘behavior is like the behavior of terrorists’ seems obvious to us. The counting of all who die in drone strikes as enemies unless posthumous evidence proves them innocent is an outrageous travesty of the rule of law. The constant hiding of the facts surrounding individual strikes is discordant with the American ideal of transparent government.
Targeted killings and the drone strike tactic are anathema and the curse will fall upon United States citizens who are, rightly, seen as complicit in these activities. The form of the curse is already taking shape in the powerful recruiting propaganda that the strikes engender.
We should put in place much stronger oversight before any strikes are launched. The evidence must be clear and reviewable by the public.
We should educate the American people about the totality of the effects of the strikes. It is not just about how many enemies we kill. It is also about how many enemies we create.
1) Magna Carta, cl. 29 (1297) (25 Ed. 1)
2) Morehouse Thesis on Effectiveness of Targeted Killings, May 2011 http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=poliscitheses
3) September, 2012 Fordham University Law School Seminar on Executive Power and Civil Liberties
4) Targeted Killing, the Law, and Terrorists: Feeling Safe? By Mark David Maxwell http://www.ndu.edu/press/targeted-killing.html
5) The Bureau of Investigative Journalism