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Magazine / 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)

photo of James Kitfield
January 31, 2013

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.

Finally, after a long silence about his role as a chief architect of hunter-killer operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for special forces—the prototype for today’s targeted killings—Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently released his memoir, My Share of the Task, which details the evolution of this new style of network-centric warfare against terrorist groups.

Taken together, those developments have the potential to spark what many experts consider a long-overdue debate about the nature of a secret operation that has claimed an estimated 3,000-plus lives and spurred an anti-American backlash in many parts of the world. On the other side of the ledger, the targeted-killing program has also undeniably helped decimate al-Qaida’s core leadership, half of whom have been killed in the past two years, and thus has helped protect the U.S. homeland from attack.

Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence, says the drone strikes have substantially weakened al-Qaida in two ways—first, by taking out leaders, such as bin Laden, with charismatic or inspirational qualities or hard-to-replace operational skills; and second, by taking away sanctuaries where terrorists can safely conduct training, logistics coordination, and intelligence planning.

But speaking to reporters recently in a call sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, Blair also said, “There is not enough transparency or public justification of this program to remove not the secrecy that surrounds it but the mystery. The Obama administration has made the cold-blooded calculation that it’s better to hunker down and take the criticism of the program rather than get into a public debate that will be hard to win. But I think that public debate will be essential in the long run.… In a democracy, you want people to know that military force is used in ways that they can be proud of, and there has been far too little debate about that.”


Not long after McChrystal took command of Joint Special Forces Task Force 714 in Iraq, the United States stumbled to the brink of losing the war. In the spring of 2004, U.S. forces were suddenly confronted by simultaneous Sunni and Shiite uprisings throughout the country. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was drawing terrorist recruits from around the world to Iraq. Worst of all, al-Qaida in Iraq, the terrorist network led by the charismatic and merciless Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was well on its way to plunging the country into an all-out sectarian civil war with its wanton slaughter of Shiite civilians.

For all the vaunted capability of the units at his command, McChrystal quickly realized that they were not up to the task of taking down al-Qaida in Iraq. Task Force 714’s far-flung operations were too disjointed and bureaucratic; its access to and exploitation of intelligence was too rudimentary and slow; and its focus on manhunts of a few “high-value targets” too limiting. Just months on the job, “I had come to see that for me to succeed, I could not simply command TF 714,” McChrystal writes in his memoir. “I would have to be a part of a new vision of how America had to fight modern wars.”

That vision became centered on McChrystal’s mantra “It takes a network to defeat a network.” He honed it with secret, multiagency task forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan that combined the personnel and expertise of intelligence, law-enforcement, and military agencies (including the CIA, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration) with elite “black ops” special-operations units such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEALs.

Drones, with an unprecedented ability to loiter over targets for extended periods and direct a “hard stare” at any map coordinate, were the superstar node in that network. The true revolution at the heart of the new model, however, was the breaking down of walls that once separated civilian and military intelligence agencies and operations, drawing special-operations forces into a realm once claimed by law-enforcement and spy agencies, and vice versa.

By the time Task Force 714 tracked down and killed Zarqawi in June 2006, its reaction times were so compressed that it launched 10 follow-on missions within hours, based on intelligence gathered from the terrorist’s house. That essential model at the center of the U.S. targeted-killing program—decentralized multiagency task forces operating largely independently with precision-strike capabilities and connected by a globe-spanning network carrying intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and analytic capabilities in real time—had been honed to a lethal edge.

“As we continued to build and refine the network, we began hitting the enemy so fast that our operations tempo just crushed them,” McChrystal told National Journal. Unable to replace experienced leaders fast enough, al-Qaida saw its capabilities steadily deteriorate as less-capable members stepped into the breach. “That model of a globally interconnected network with a decentralized ethos of operations turned us into an efficient machine,” McChrystal said. “We became the of counterterrorism.”

For a display of that new counterterrorism model in action, look no further than Zero Dark Thirty, which dramatizes the hunt for bin Laden by following the “Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, and Analyze” (or F3EA in militaryspeak) narrative of operations pioneered by McChrystal and TF 714. “I do think the bin Laden raid was a perfect example of the model in action and the multiagency cooperation it represents,” he said. “We would never have been able to conduct that raid successfully seven years ago, simply because the trust didn’t exist between Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA to share the critical intelligence.”


If TF 714’s actions on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan were critical in pioneering the network at the center of U.S. counterterrorism operations, Brennan gets much of the credit for embracing the template and expanding it to cover U.S. global counterterrorism operations.

In Obama’s first term, the U.S. launched six times more lethal drone strikes in Pakistan than during George W. Bush’s two terms in office. Under Brennan’s direction, the United States has also greatly expanded the program, beyond targets such as Qaida leaders or operators who pose an “imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” to include “signature strikes” against groups of suspected Taliban or Yemeni insurgents who merely exhibit “suspicious behavior.” An analysis by the New America Foundation of thousands of credible media reports about the strikes found that the Obama administration’s drone strikes had killed between 1,494 and 2,618 people, or more than four times the death toll during the Bush years. While the civilian casualty rate has been dropping sharply since 2008, New America estimated that roughly 11 percent of those killed by the drones during Obama’s term were either civilians or “unknowns.”

In a seminal speech in April 2012, Brennan went further than any administration official in describing the program’s basic outlines. In the process, he acknowledged that a secret, executive-branch operation that leaves such carnage in its wake is an uncomfortable fit for a democratic society. “Our counterterrorism tools do not exist in a vacuum,” Brennan admitted. “They are stronger and more sustainable when the American people understand and support them. They are weaker and less sustainable when the American people do not.”

In that spirit, could Brennan tell the American people at his confirmation hearings what legal justification the administration used to authorize the extrajudicial targeting of suspected American terrorists? How do “signature strikes” against unidentified individuals comport with the administration’s pledge to target only those Qaida and affiliated terrorists who represent an “imminent threat”? Why is a “capture or kill” counterterrorism program weighted in its execution so overwhelmingly toward the latter? How do officials calculate the possibility of civilian casualties in the proposed “disposition matrix”? Why does it take judicial review and a warrant to wiretap the private communications of U.S. citizens but not to target suspected citizen terrorists for assassination?

Ironically, knowledgeable sources say Brennan has been a leading voice within the administration arguing for stricter limits on the targeted killing program, alongside officials of the Justice and State departments, against those in the Defense Department and the CIA who want to expand the program.

“In many ways, Brennan is a paradox: a devout Catholic who apparently opposes ‘enhanced interrogations,’ the death penalty at home, and those inside the government who want to expand the targeted-killing program further,” said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the recent report “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies.” “At the same time, Brennan has been slow to put the targeted killing program he has overseen on firmer institutional footing by placing limits on it and making it more transparent,” Zenko continued. “That’s how the Bush administration lost its ability to continue conducting ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and warrantless wiretaps, both of which Bush argued were essential counterterrorism tools.”

A more transparent debate about the program at Brennan’s confirmation hearings is also likely to highlight just how dramatically a decade of war has transformed America. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials routinely criticized Israel for its targeted-assassination program aimed at Palestinian terrorists. Today, deadly strikes by armed robotic drones are so routine that the media give them only passing mention. The U.S. targeted killing program also enjoys support from a majority of the public and from a relatively compliant Congress.

As the government has honed the ability to eliminate enemies of the state in a clandestine war without end, however, the once clear lines between all-out warfare and peacetime law enforcement continue to fade. Some Qaida suspects are granted Miranda rights and charged in federal courts, while others are kept in military prisons and prosecuted by military commissions or simply held indefinitely. Still others are eviscerated far from any acknowledged battlefield by an executive branch that claims the authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner. In a nation in a state of perpetual conflict, the danger is that those lines between war and peace will continue to blur until Americans have forgotten the difference.

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