Micah Zenko

A First Draft of the Third War

Why President Obama should commission a history of targeted killing.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since 11:47 on Wednesday morning, the beginning of a Senate filibuster to delay a vote on John Brennan’s nomination to head the CIA, "Rand Paul," "drones," and "John Brennan" have intermittently been trending on Twitter. This attention-grabbing focus on targeted killings — which will last only until Paul runs out of steam — is representative of the sporadic attention that the controversial tactic has received from policymakers and the public.

With each supposed revelation — the "kill list," "signature strikes," "disposition matrix," and the leaking of a Department of Justice white paper providing the legal justification for killing American citizens — there is a frenzy of interest in drone strikes. Analysts (myself included) are repeatedly asked, "Where is this all heading in five or ten years?" In other words: What additional lethal missions will U.S. armed drones execute, and where will they occur? What other states will seek to develop this military capability?

But, in general, there is relative indifference to the history of America’s Third War — the 10-year campaign of over 400 targeted killings in non-battlefield settings that have killed an estimated 3,500 to 4,700 people. And that is puzzling, particularly since they have become a defining feature of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy.

Over the past few months, many stakeholders in and out of government have offered recommendations about how the Obama administration should change, limit, end, or enhance its targeted killing policies. However, there have been no calls for an official government study into the history and evolution of non-battlefield targeted killings. This is essential, since reforms must first be informed by an accurate accounting of how the policies were originally conceived, how they were implemented and altered based on updated information, whether they succeeded or failed at achieving their objectives, and what their intended and unintended effects have been.

If President Obama believes what he said in his State of the Union address — "It is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we are doing the right thing" — then he should authorize a comprehensive historical review into targeted killings, ideally by an independent commission. This review would later be declassified — with input from the original classification authorities — to the greatest extent possible without revealing classified information regarding the sources and methods of such operations. This would include protecting those foreign liaison relationships that facilitate U.S. military or intelligence access to denied areas.

The president and his senior officials have repeatedly asserted that drones are "surgical," "discriminate," and "precise," and that there is a very careful and deliberate interagency process ("not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions"). If that is true, then the Obama administration must believe it has a positive targeted killings story to share with the public. This would be preferable to the surreptitious custom of rebutting criticisms of targeted killings via anonymous officials, or selectively disavowing attacks that were initially thought to be drone strikes, as the New York Times reported on Monday.

Such an action would not be unprecedented. In May 2009, President Obama declassified Office of Legal Counsel memoranda justifying torture "because the existence of that approach to interrogation was already widely known, the Bush administration had acknowledged its existence." Today, targeted killings via U.S. drone strikes are openly debated, and Obama himself explicitly acknowledged the practice of targeted killings in Pakistan over 13 months ago. The principle and excuse of deniability no longer applies and is an unacceptable defense for the limitless secrecy surrounding the targeted killings program.

There are publicly available or partially declassified U.S. government reports on similarly controversial topics, including the CIA’s 2004 report on detention and interrogation, the Pentagon’s 2005 review of detention and interrogation, and the director of national intelligence’s 2012 report on Guantanamo detainees. There have also been major reports, like the 9/11 Commission Report and the congressional joint inquiry into the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as the U.S. military’s highly critical assessments of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Finally, there was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report on Afghanistan’s narco-war, which revealed that U.S. military forces "put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list, called the joint integrated prioritized target list."

If the White House is unable or unwilling to conduct a similar study on drones, then Congress should build upon its recent efforts at oversight by initiating a full and complete accounting of non-battlefield targeted killings. This could be done through a joint inquiry or within the committees on governmental affairs, foreign relations, armed services, or intelligence. It would include staff investigations, closed hearings with administration officials, and public hearings with outside experts and former officials. One recent example is the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 6,000-page report on CIA torture, which may be released in whole or in part "after receiving executive branch comments," according to Senator Dianne Feinstein. Given that Congress (justifiably) investigated America’s role in the torture of an estimated 136 victims, it is surely worth investigating the targeted killings program, which has killed over 3,000 suspected terrorists, militants, and civilians — and counting.

The first component of reform is drawing upon the experiences and lessons of the past. Without an official history of targeted killings, future U.S. government officials and employees will only be influenced by the immediate scope of their responsibilities, and citizens will absorb each new headline without a broader context or awareness. An executive or congressional historical report of targeted killings should receive bipartisan support, since the program has actually spanned three administrations — even Bill Clinton maintained a kill list of "fewer than ten" suspected al Qaeda members. However, virtually all policymakers and citizens have forgotten that and are similarly unaware of the deep and opaque history of the Third War, because their focus is forever on the present and the future.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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