This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take US foreign policy in a different direction. "A decade of war is now ending," Obama declared. "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."
Much of the media focus that day was on the new hairstyle of First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared on the dais sporting freshly trimmed bangs, and on the celebrities in attendance, including hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, who performed the national anthem. But the day Obama was sworn in, a US drone strike hit Yemen. It was the third such attack in that country in as many days. Despite the rhetoric from the president on the Capitol steps, there was abundant evidence that he would continue to preside over a country that is in a state of perpetual war.
In the year leading up to the inauguration, more people had been killed in US drone strikes across the globe than were imprisoned at Guantánamo. As Obama was sworn in for his second term, his counterterrorism team was finishing up the task of systematizing the kill list, including developing rules for when US citizens could be targeted. Admiral William McRaven had been promoted to the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and his Special Ops forces were operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.
After General David Petraeus's career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the Agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill program. After four years as Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the "assassination czar" for his role in US drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.
When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan's role in the Bush-era detainee program. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a "playbook" for crossing names off the kill list. "Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it," noted the Washington Post.
Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by "seeking to codify the administration's approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced," the paper added. "The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan's desk, and subsequently presented to the president."
Obama's counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the "Disposition Matrix," a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing program would persist for "at least another decade." During his first term in office, the Washington Post concluded, "Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war."
Redefining "Imminent Threat"
In early 2013, a Department of Justice "white paper" surfaced that laid out the "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen." The government lawyers who wrote the 16-page document asserted that the government need not possess specific intelligence indicating that an American citizen is actively engaged in a particular or active terror plot in order to be cleared for targeted killing. Instead, the paper argued that a determination from a "well-informed high level administration official" that a target represents an "imminent threat" to the United States is a sufficient basis to order the killing of an American citizen. But the Justice Department's lawyers sought to alter the definition of "imminent," advocating what they called a "broader concept of imminence."
They wrote, "The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons will take place in the immediate future." The government lawyers argued that waiting for a targeted killing of a suspect "until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself." They asserted that such an operation constitutes "a lawful killing in self-defense" and is "not an assassination."
Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU called the white paper a "chilling document," saying that "it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen." Jaffer added, "This power is going to be available to the next administration and the one after that, and it's going to be available in every future conflict, not just the conflict against al-Qaeda. And according to the [Obama] administration, the power is available all over the world, not just on geographically cabined battlefields. So it really is a sweeping proposition."
In October 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Barack Obama gave the first major speech of his national political career. The then-state senator came out forcefully against going to war in Iraq, but he began his speech with a clarification. "Although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances… I don't oppose all wars." Obama declared, "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war." During his first campaign for president, Obama had blasted the Bush administration for fighting the wrong war—Iraq—and repeatedly criticized his opponent, Senator John McCain, for not articulating how he would take the fight to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
As his first term in office wound down, the overwhelming majority of US military forces had been withdrawn from Iraq and plans for a similar drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014 were being openly discussed. The administration had succeeded in convincing the American public that Obama was waging a smarter war than his predecessor. As he ran for reelection, Obama was asked about charges from his Republican opponents that his foreign policy was based on appeasement. "Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement," Obama replied. "Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that."
As the war on terror entered a second decade, the fantasy of a clean war took hold. It was a myth fostered by the Obama administration, and it found a ready audience. All polls indicated that Americans were tired of large military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mounting US troop casualties that came with them. A 2012 poll found that 83% of Americans supported Obama's drone program, with 77% of self-identified liberal Democrats supporting such strikes. The Washington Post–ABC News poll determined that support for drone strikes declined "only somewhat" in cases where a US citizen was the target.
President Obama and his advisers seldom mentioned the drone program publicly. In fact, the first known confirmation of the use of armed drones by the president came several years into Obama's first term. It was not in the form of a legal brief or a press conference, but rather on a Google+ "Hangout" as the president took questions from the public. Obama was asked about his use of drones. "I want to make sure that people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," Obama said. "For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it's been applied."
He rejected what he called the "perception" that "we're just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly" and asserted that "this is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on." Obama added: "It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It's not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions. And it is also part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al-Qaeda. It is not something that's being used beyond that."
Michael Boyle, a former adviser in the Obama campaign's counterterrorism experts group and a professor at LaSalle University, said that one of the reasons the administration was "so successful in spinning the number of civilian casualties" was the use of signature strikes and other systems for categorizing military-aged males as legitimate targets, even if their specific identities were unknown. "The result of the 'guilt by association' approach has been a gradual loosening of the standards by which the US selects targets for drone strikes," Boyle charged. "The consequences can be seen in the targeting of mosques or funeral processions that kill non-combatants and tear at the social fabric of the regions where they occur." No one, he added, "really knows the number of deaths caused by drones in these distant, sometimes ungoverned, lands."
Using drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory. The war on terror, launched under a Republican administration, was ultimately legitimized and expanded by a popular Democratic president. Although Barack Obama's ascent to the most powerful office on Earth was the result of myriad factors, it was largely due to the desire of millions of Americans to shift course from the excesses of the Bush era.
Had John McCain won the election, it is difficult to imagine such widespread support, particularly among liberal Democrats, for some of the very counterterrorism policies that Obama implemented. As individuals, we must all ask whether we would support the same policies—the expansion of drone strikes, the empowerment of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the use of the State Secrets Privilege, the use of indefinite detention, the denial of habeas corpus rights, the targeting of US citizens without charge or trial—if the commander in chief was not our candidate of choice.
But beyond the partisan lens, the policies implemented by the Obama administration will have far-reaching consequences. Future US presidents—Republican or Democratic—will inherit a streamlined process for assassinating enemies of America, perceived or real. They will inherit an executive branch with sweeping powers, rationalized under the banner of national security.