Among those with some sense of humanity, some sense of the rule of law, some sense of the precious individual liberties terminally threatened by an ever-expanding government with ever-expanding powers to use force, today’s must-read Washington Post article by Greg Miller induces nausea and fear. The Post‘s article exposes many previously unknown details about the Obama administration’s drone war, describing the targeted killing program’s dramatic expansion, terrifying innovations in the presidential kill lists which inform the targeted program, and the unprecedented willingness to violate the law to kill people by kingly presidential decree.
The article describes how kill lists have evolved into something called a “disposition matrix” which secretly collects information on targeted individuals and the efforts to kill or capture them. “Among senior Obama administration officials,” Miller writes, “there is a broad consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at least another decade” which is a “timeline [that] suggests that the United States has reached only the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on terrorism.”
There are many aspects of the troubling exposé, but the one that sticks out is the Obama administration’s achievement of making targeted killing by drone – that is, extra-judicial assassinations by unchecked Executive decree – utterly normal and routine. Miller talks about “the extent to which 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.”
Permanent war. Obama has institutionalized a system of permanent war in order to allow an ongoing, blatantly authoritarian ‘war power’ to kill anybody he wants, anywhere, anytime without any charges or trials ever being brought. Obama has made permanent what “were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” Miller writes, establishing what “are now fixtures of the national security apparatus.”
What was once taboo, even for an outlaw government like the United States, is now ordinary, routine.
The creation of the matrix and the institutionalization of kill/capture lists reflect a shift that is as psychological as it is strategic.
Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States recoiled at the idea of targeted killing. The Sept. 11 commission recounted how the Clinton administration had passed on a series of opportunities to target bin Laden in the years before the attacks — before armed drones existed. President Bill Clinton approved a set of cruise-missile strikes in 1998 after al-Qaeda bombed embassies in East Africa, but after extensive deliberation, and the group’s leader escaped harm.
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.
As Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations writes today, “Miller’s report underscores the cementing of the mindset and apparent group-think among national security policymakers that the routine and indefinite killing of suspected terrorists and nearby military-age males is ethical, moral, legal, and effective (for now).” He says “it demonstrates the increasing institutionalization…of executive branch power to use lethal force without any meaningful checks and balances.”
To demonstrate how careless and inhuman the approach to killing people, both suspects and innocents suspected of nothing, Zenko recalls a conversation with “a military official with extensive and wide-ranging experience in the special operations world, and who has had direct exposure to the targeted killing program,” in which this official told him, “It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?”
“After following this program closely for the past half-dozen years,” Zenko writes, “I have stopped being surprised by how far and how quickly the United States has moved from the international norm against assassinations or ‘extrajudicial killings.'” But, he insists, the normalcy that the drone wars is now infected with is a sharp break with the very recent past:
Assassinations ran counter to well-established international norms, and were prohibited under both treaty and customary international law. Third, weakening the international norm against assassinations could result in retaliatory killings of American leaders, who are more vulnerable as a consequence of living in a relatively open society. Fourth, the targeted killing of suspected terrorists or political leaders was generally considered an ineffective foreign policy tool. An assassination attempt that failed could be counterproductive, in that it would create more legal and diplomatic problems than it was worth. An attempt that succeeded, meanwhile, would likely do little to diminish the long-term threat from an enemy state or group. Finally, the secretive and treacherous aspect of targeted killings was considered antithetical to the moral and ethical precepts of the United States.
The Obama administration’s vulgar authoritarian proclivities in making murder by Executive decree a permanent fixture of the national security state apparatus, has made actions that were considered a mere ten years ago to be outrageous, lawless overreach into standard operating procedure. “Having spoken with dozens of officials across both administrations,” Zenko writes, “I am convinced that those serving under President Bush were actually much more conscious and thoughtful about the long-term implications of targeted killings than those serving under Obama.”
Obama, unbeknownst to his hordes of “liberal-minded” supporters, is more radically lawless in his exercise of permanent war powers than Bush.
Glenn Greenwald boils this all down:
The core guarantee of western justice since the Magna Carta was codified in the US by the fifth amendment to the constitution: “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” You simply cannot have a free society, a worthwhile political system, without that guarantee, that constraint on the ultimate abusive state power, being honored.
And yet what the Post is describing, what we have had for years, is a system of government that – without hyperbole – is the very antithesis of that liberty. It is literally impossible to imagine a more violent repudiation of the basic blueprint of the republic than the development of a secretive, totally unaccountable executive branch agency that simultaneously collects information about all citizens and then applies a “disposition matrix” to determine what punishment should be meted out.
“As the Founders all recognized,” Greenwald writes, “nothing vests elites with power – and profit – more than a state of war.” A more apt summation of the fundamental recognition of this site could hardly be uttered by Randolph Bourne himself. War truly is the health of the state, and the Obama administration epitomizes what can happen when the power-hungry grab hold the reins of government and make war on individuals, war on civil liberties, a perpetual feature of the state.