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A Policy of Assassinations Is Being Conducted in Our Name

The focus on the technology of remote killing often serves as a surrogate for what should be a broader examination of the state’s power over life and death.

(Photo: Sergey Melkonov; Edited: LW / TO)

How does the United States government grant itself the right to sentence people to death without due process in the name of national security? In The Assassination Complex, Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept provide provide a window into the inner workings of the US military’s bloody targeted killing and capture campaigns in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Order this revelatory book by donating to Truthout today!

The following excerpt is from The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program:

From his first days as commander in chief, the drone has been President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice, used by the military and the CIA to hunt down and kill the people his administration has deemed — through secretive processes, without indictment or trial — deserving of execution. There has been intense focus on the technology of remote killing, but that often serves as a surrogate for what should be a broader examination of the state’s power over life and death.

Drones are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination. While every president since Gerald Ford has upheld an executive order banning assassinations by US personnel, Congress has avoided legislating the issue or even defining the word “assassination.” This has allowed proponents of the drone wars to rebrand assassinations with more palatable characterizations, such as the term du jour, “targeted killings.”

(Image: Simon & Schuster)(Image: Simon & Schuster)When the Obama administration has discussed drone strikes publicly, it has offered assurances that such operations are a more precise alternative to boots on the ground and are authorized only when an “imminent” threat is present and there is “near certainty” that the intended target will be eliminated. Those terms, however, appear to have been bluntly redefined to bear almost no resemblance to their commonly understood meanings.

The first drone strike outside of a declared war zone was conducted in 2002, yet it was not until May 2013 that the White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting such strikes. Those guidelines offered little specificity, asserting that the United States would conduct a lethal strike outside an “area of active hostilities” only if a target represents a “continuing, imminent threat to US persons,” without providing any sense of the internal process used to determine whether a suspect should be killed without being indicted or tried. The implicit message on drone strikes from the Obama administration has been Trust, but don’t verify.

On October 15, 2015, The Intercept published a cache of secret slides that provide a window into the inner workings of the US military’s kill/capture operations during a key period in the evolution of the drone wars: between 2011 and 2013. The documents, which also outline the internal views of special operations forces on the shortcomings and flaws of the drone program, were provided by a source within the intelligence community who worked on the types of operations and programs described in the slides. We granted the source’s request for anonymity because the materials are classified and because the US government has engaged in aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers. Throughout this book, we will refer to this person simply as “the source.”

The source said he decided to disclose these documents because he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the US government: “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, 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.”

The Pentagon, White House, and Special Operations Command declined to comment on the documents. A Defense Department spokesperson said, “We don’t comment on the details of classified reports.”

The CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command

(JSOC) operate parallel drone-based assassination programs, and the secret documents should be viewed in the context of an intense turf war over which entity should have supremacy in those operations. Two sets of slides focus on the military’s high-value targeting campaign in Somalia and Yemen as it existed between 2011 and 2013, specifically the operations of a secretive unit, Task Force 48-4. Additional documents on high-value kill/capture operations in Afghanistan buttress previous accounts of how the Obama administration masks the true number of civilians killed in drone strikes by categorizing unidentified people killed in a strike as enemies, even if they were not the intended targets. The slides also paint a picture of a campaign in Afghanistan aimed at eliminating not only al Qaeda and Taliban operatives but also members of other local armed groups.

Copyright (2016) by First Look Media Works, Inc. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster.