The New York Times has revealed  that President Barack Obama hosts a “Terror Tuesday” secure PowerPoint-style teleconference attended weekly by his top 100 intelligence and security officials. After the meeting he goes through a “nominating process” by viewing the “baseball cards” showing suspected terrorists, before personally deciding who is to be assassinated by drones; he also, in some cases, explicitly approves killing the suspect’s family if it should be in the vicinity of the strike. No one should be surprised by what the article reveals. The journalists describe a president “quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States” whose drone wars have increased in number and lethality since he ascended to the Oval Office. As a result, it has been plausibly suggested that killing by machine will become the low-intensity warfare option of the future for every nation that can afford the technology, following the lead of the United States.
Knowing that drone strikes are taking place at some place in the world on an almost daily basis and that they have become the chief U.S. counterterrorism tool, one could only conclude that the White House was in the loop on the decision-making. Obama’s explanation for his personal involvement — a Harry Trumanesque “buck stops here” decision that he as president wants to take the moral responsibility for the policy — would be more convincing if he would also take legal responsibility for ordering assassinations. As a lawyer, he understands that he might somehow someday wind up in jail if he accepts legal culpability, whereas moral responsibility in Washington won’t buy a cup of coffee.
That the president himself, reportedly deeply versed in the Just War theories of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, is calling the shots on targeted killing seems to have met with approval from the journalists at the New York Times, who see it as an uncontroversial aspect of an “evolving” management style. The paper’s news report nevertheless apparently traumatized the editorial staff, who subsequently opined  that this was “Too Much Power for a President.” But it should have been equally troubling to the Times that any elected or appointed official, at any level, should be so empowered. The editors, disturbed by the presence of Obama’s campaign manager David Axelrod at the meetings, expressed its preference for requiring the “consent of someone outside his political inner circle” to depoliticize the issue, and then added its recommendation that Obama “should publish clear guidelines for targeting to be carried out by non-politicians.”
The Times‘ solution is a cop out, ignoring the real legal and moral issues while in no way challenging a policy that should never have been considered in the first place. But perhaps we should just get over it. The president, be he Republican or Democrat, can basically do what he wants in national-security policy, and 99 percent of Congress could not care less. But I can’t ignore a vision that I have of George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin sitting in a room once a week and pondering a list of people who are going to be assassinated by the federal government. Would they consider Obama a legitimate heir to their political legacy instead of a mass murderer?
Historically speaking, the point of an independent judiciary is to maintain transparency and objectivity in applying the law, so that we the people will see that justice is done impartially. If that were not the point, we might just as well set up a Star Chamber and let it do the adjudicating for us. The widespread post-9/11 acceptance of secret deliberations that lead to people being killed without any public process does not suggest that our country is any longer interested in elusive concepts like freedom and liberty. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were both backed up by completely arbitrary police power, but they were also meticulous in following established procedures. People were actually tried for bogus crimes before being executed and detailed court records were maintained. Most Germans and Russians understood that the process was fraudulent, unlike contemporary Americans who seem to think that arbitrarily assassinating suspected terrorists is just fine. Judicial punctiliousness is no longer the rule or even the pretense in Washington, when the trial is nonexistent and execution is carried out at the first available opportunity, whether the target is alone or going on a picnic with his family.
And there is another aspect, which I understand very well as a former intelligence officer. As the Times article puts it, quoting an Obama administration official, “A certain amount of screw ups are going to happen.” Another former official noted that when you keep going lower and lower in the alleged terrorist hierarchies to continue the killing, you are doing little more than “filling a bucket with numbers.” The government deliberately plays with definitions to justify the continued carnage. For example, when a Pakistani man of arms-bearing age is killed, even if he was really a farmer or a school teacher, the CIA invariably describes him as a “militant” and will not change that designation unless contrary evidence is somehow provided.
Just how reliable is the initial evidence that the Pakistani victim was a terrorist involved in aggression against the United States? Not very, I suspect. The United States has only limited intelligence resources in Pakistan and is heavily dependent on what the Pakistani government chooses to share, informants working for money or revenge, and signals intelligence. That means make the wrong phone call to someone who is believed to be a bad guy, and you are in trouble because you will be linked by satellite to what he is doing. Likewise, don’t make your neighbor mad or he might start spreading rumors about what you do at night. Or the Pakistani or Yemeni government might want to have you removed for some reason totally unconnected to terrorism. As the Times article revealed, the U.S. government has on its death list American citizens, people whose names it does not even know, and even teenagers, including a 17-year-old girl.
In the real world outside the White House, intelligence assessments are frequently mistaken for two reasons. First, agencies collect information from multiple sources, both human and technical. If all the sources are saying the same thing that is fine, but most often the intelligence will consist of bits and pieces that must be sorted for reliability and then pieced together. It is not a scientific process and is prone to error in interpretation and analysis. And once you have what you think to be the story, the second element kicks in–ambition. CIA officers do not get promoted because they put in a 60-hour-plus week and at the end of it are unable to discover a possible target. Their career success comes with identifying and killing people who are believed to be terrorists. The eagerness to do so can result in reckless behavior in pursuit of information, a failing that led to the deaths of seven CIA officers when a Jordanian double agent blew himself up at a base in Khost Afghanistan in 2009. So when in doubt, the inclination will be to charge ahead, to accept the piecemeal information as reliable because no one wants a bad guy to get away. The combination of poor information and willingness to accept that someone is a terrorist when the case is far from made helps explais why so many civilians are killed in drone strikes.
You can substitute Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen for Pakistan — in all those places the U.S. is heavily reliant on local or government sources and the eyes and ears of satellites to make judgments about what is going on and who is doing what to whom. One official quipped that three men doing exercises in Pakistan who are observed by a satellite will inevitably be judged terrorists at a training camp by CIA and executed by drone. Obama’s White House situation room has even broken down its targets into categories: a personality strike seeks to kill a known individual, a signature strike hits a group that is suspected of terrorist activity, and a terrorist attack disruption strike, or TAD, targets people who have not actually been identified but who fit a profile. To be accused of being a terrorist based on that kind of evidence, coupled to such bureaucratic nonsense, is a travesty, particularly since the United States government has a politically driven predisposition to ignore any presumption of innocence so it can go out and kill people to convince the public that we are being protected.
So “do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” it is ringing for all of us. In the past 11 years we have fallen into an abyss. That the New York Times can write a basically laudatory article explaining how the president of the United States meets weekly to draw up a list of people to be killed without producing an immediate demand for impeachment from Congress, the media, and the public boggles the mind. What kind of monsters have we become and how much worse can it get? Perhaps President Mitt Romney will provide an answer to that, as he has promised to lead us into new wars, with even more bloated defense budgets, all inspired by a heavy dose of good old American exceptionalism.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.