Greg Miller will shine a lighton the new American way of war for the next three days, with a multi-part series in the Washington Post on the kill list, the way in which terrorist suspects are selected for death from above by Predator drones. The goal here appears to be to codify the techniques into executive branch practice, for turnkey use by any current or future Administration.
Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition” of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are winding down, but the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years.
The truly ironic piece of this comes when the ubiquitous senior Administration official explains that “We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” as a justification for making permanent a program that efforts to kill everyone who wants to harm us.
If the targeted assassination program never has a shortage of individuals to place on the list, how can it be said to be working? If every suspected terrorist killed does not reduce the threat of terrorism more generally, why would this be seen as anything but a costly boondoggle? Is there any attempt to model whether the frequency of drone strikes and the frequency of terrorist suspects rise and fall at the same rate?
To make this perfectly clear, this is how we wage wars these days; in covert operations, from the sky, with no chance of human casualties. The conventional wars have been winding down, and will soon end. These drone wars have supplanted them. There’s just as much money for defense contractors in building flying robot machines and remote control technology as there is in building aircraft carriers or heavy weapons. Far too much of the drone budget is off the books and therefore more immune to pressure for cutting. For all the debates about the defense budget, the budget for flying robot machines and their remote control technology never comes up.
Marcy Wheeler points out that, in addition to institutionalizing the targeted killing as if it’s just another form you have to fill out in the White House, the executive branch has set it up in such a way as to stay deliberately beyond Congressional oversight. John Brennan, an unelected appointee without Senate confirmation, holds most of this power in his hands.
One of the reasons Brennan is in the position he is is because he wasn’t considered confirmable: his background with torture (and illegal wiretapping) made him politically toxic. And yet this guy, who hasn’t been Senate confirmed and whose position evades almost all Congressional oversight, is the guy with power over life and death rather than a position over which Congress does exercise clear oversight? [...]
There are a number of famous examples where top White House officials claim to consult the President on an issue but–history ends up showing–never did (I suspect the Plame outing is just one of many things Cheney did this with, for example, and Al Haig used to do it too). Is there any reason we should believe that when Brennan steps out of the room he’s actually consulting Obama, or that he’s representing an apparently contentious debate faithfully? This is classic gatekeeping behavior, and on something as important as targeting, ought to concern everyone.
Congress has already kicked all responsibility for these national security-related matters upstairs to the White House. But to insulate the President, the targeted killing program has apparently been kicked into a corner and increasingly in the hands of one political appointee.
We certainly have no political debate on these matters: Mitt Romney wholeheartedly supported this apparatus in the foreign policy debate, and we can expect him to use it enthusiastically. Politically speaking, there’s no angle for opposing these terrorism policies anymore; the issue has now gathered bipartisan support, with its use by the last two Administrations. I don’t see a way out.
More from Glenn Greenwald.
Photo by reway2007 under Creative Commons license