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national security

Targeted Killings: Obama’s Endless War

Even as it pulls forces out of Afghanistan, the Obama administration wants to continue high-tech targeted killings in the war against terrorists.


Killing fields: A funeral for Pakistanis reportedly killed in a drone attack. (AP Photo/Hasbunullah, File)

In his Inaugural Address, President Obama offered a paean to peace for a nation wearied by war. Americans will show the courage to strive to resolve our differences with other countries peacefully, he pledged, because no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” Obama said.

For a president whose foreign policy is defined in large part by his determination to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a signature expression of hope for a more peaceful era to come. Yet even as Obama spoke, his administration was laying a more solid foundation for a largely undeclared and seemingly endless war that rages on. In fact, after a period of relative quiet on the counterterrorism front, the United States rang in the new year with a deadly display of firepower, as drone aircraft operated by the CIA and special-operations forces unleashed a fusillade of Hellfire missiles on suspected terrorists and insurgents in multiple countries.


In Pakistan, CIA drones struck seven times within a 10-day span in 2013, marking a major escalation in the pace of the controversial attacks. In North Waziristan, Pakistan, where residents complain of hearing a constant buzz of unseen drones circling overhead, anti-American street protests are frequent in some areas. Likewise in Yemen, after a lull in activity, U.S. counterterrorism forces have reportedly conducted five drone strikes since Christmas, equaling in a matter of days half the total strikes in that country in all of 2011. Coincidentally, that was also the year cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and two other U.S.-born citizens associated with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula became the first Americans to find themselves in the bull’s-eye. By adding them to the target list, the program that has come to define the Obama administration’s counterterrorism policies crossed a Rubicon.

Remarkably for operations with such lethal blowback, the targeted killing program remains cloaked in secrecy. In U.S. courts, where the government has contested lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times seeking the legal justification for a program that has targeted Americans for certain death, officials refuse to even publicly acknowledge its existence. Obama held a press conference on Jan. 14, but the White House press corps has become so inured by years of evasion on the subject that reporters failed to ask the commander in chief a single question about the recent rash of extrajudicial killings.

“The administration has dribbled out its rationale for lethal drones in incomplete bits and pieces, which has made it very hard for the public to get its hands around a program that is not only secret but also obviously expanding from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan and Yemen, and who knows where else,” said Paul Pillar, formerly the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. “Given that these lethal drone operations are clearly becoming part of the ‘new normal’ for America, I think the White House will have to be a little more forthcoming about the criteria for who the government decides to kill, and who it does not.”



As fate would have it, a rare confluence of events is opening a brief window onto the targeted killing program, offering the world perhaps the best opportunity to examine in detail an operation that claimed its first suspected terrorist way back in 2001. For starters, the famously well-sourced film Zero Dark Thirty is now in theaters, chronicling the hunt for Osama bin Laden in graphic detail. The story it depicts is accurate enough to have prompted the Pentagon’s inspector general to investigate whether Michael Vickers, the Defense undersecretary for intelligence, revealed classified information when he talked with the filmmakers. The movie has also resurrected water-cooler discussions over its controversial narrative suggesting that torture produced the key intelligence that led to bin Laden, as well as over the Navy SEALs’ “shoot on sight” raid tactics.

With much of the rest of the world critical of the targeted killings, the United Nations has launched an investigation that is sure to shine an uncomfortable light on aspects of the program. Like U.S. officials, U.N. investigators anticipate that the technology behind the drones will spread, and they are reportedly studying the program as a likely precedent for how other nations will operate the lethal aircraft.

Before the presidential election, the White House, facing the prospect that it might have to hand a much-expanded targeted-killing operation over to a Mitt Romney administration, launched an initiative to institutionalize and sustain it—reportedly, for at least a decade and quite possibly beyond. The push includes codifying the rules and procedures governing the program into a single classified “rule book,” and developing a comprehensive “disposition matrix” that plots those targeted for capture or death along with intelligence on their acquaintances, whereabouts, and the resources directed at finding, fixing, and finishing them. Spearheading the initiative is White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who will surely face questions about it during Senate hearings in early February on his nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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