Whistleblower Releases Documents About Secret US Drone Assassination Program
Paradoxically, the United States, which has engaged itself in a conflict in nearly every decade for the past century, does not condone assassinations.
Congress has refused time and again to do anything to define or outlaw the practice, but generally American exceptionalism prevents the word “assassination” from being used in terms of the enemy. Rather, leaders have chosen terms like “targeted killings” when describing the policy of killing specific individuals engaged in anti-American operations.
President Obama was elected on a campaign of “hope” and “change” in which he would close down the Guantanamo Bay complex where prisoners were held without trial and wind down the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many on the Republican side feared that Obama would not have “what it takes” to pull the trigger on sensitive national security matters, such as pulling the trigger on targeted killing missions. They needn’t have feared, however, because the past 8 years have brought serious advances in a technology near and dear to the heart of the military-industrial complex: drones.
First Non-Combat Drone Strike Was in 2002
While Obama’s presidency was not the beginning of drone warfare, as a much more primitive drone was used to conduct a strike in Yemen in 2002 under George W. Bush, Obama’s military policy has revolved around avoiding deploying soldiers and instead using the technology at the government’s disposal to achieve its ends. The government would rather its actions be seen as heroic and somewhat humanitarian than acts of international war. The strike in Yemen represented a shift in foreign policy, however, and one that has not been discontinued under the Obama administration. Yemen, after all, was not a declared war zone. The strike was conducted in a gray area. There had been no congressional authorization to conduct warfare in Yemen, and there were no guidelines for the use of such force.
A couple years ago, in May 2013, the Obama administration released a handy set of guidelines on how force could be applied outside of both the United States and its war zones. The document speaks of a “preference for capture” but it is unclear how deadly drones are supposed to cuff someone. The document, after all, does not even really cover drone operations. Just situations in which it’s okay for the government to kill people despite them not being in a war zone, which would indicate they could be an active threat to US personnel on the ground. The document does have an onerous provision which provides the president authority in “extraordinary circumstances,” stating:
These new standards and procedures do not limit the President’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies.
According to new documents leaked to the Intercept, the government has increased its use of watch and kill lists in at least Afghanistan. A specific operation entitled Haymaker, which was designed to route specific targets in Northeastern Afghanistan, was deemed a failure during a brief in 2012. There was no indication in the slides that the program would be ended, however. Worse yet, of the more than 200 people killed in Operation Haymaker, only 35 were actually targeted. This means that somewhere around 5 people were killed for every person that was supposed to be killed – exactly the sort of metric the American public would be shocked to learn, and perhaps the reason the document remains “classified.”
Drone operators, a growing set of military personnel, are given lists and trained on what to look for. While sometimes drones are used for surveillance, and personnel are deployed to capture the target, often enough the drone operators are given orders to kill on sight. Other tools are available to the 21st-century commanders, such as the ability to detect calls from certain phones and then locate where they are. The complexity of operating in environments like the mountains of Afghanistan and the level of surveillance the military has been able to reach in the region is really quite impressive.
The Department of Defense wouldn’t comment to the Intercept about the documents it had received. The whistle blower, however, had some choice words about why he leaked the documents and who he feels is responsible for this escalation of US kill powers:
This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong. […] We’re allowing this to happen. And by ‘we,’ I mean every American citizen who has access to this information now, but continues to do nothing about it.
Edward Snowden said on Twitter that an “unspeakable lie” had been shattered.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 15, 2015
The documents themselves are mostly slides shown to higher level commanders during briefings. A fly on the wall in such a briefing would have much more insight into how the decisions are actually made. The bottom line is that if US foreign policy has changed under Barack Obama, then it’s been mostly in how it was described and presented to the American people.
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