Who’s Afraid of the Kill List?

Military analysis.
June 15 2012 8:32 PM

Who’s Afraid of the Kill List?

Some may find it morally iffy. But at least Obama is taking responsibility for making the toughest decisions.

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President Barack Obama

By Isaac Brekken/Getty Images.

What’s all the fuss about President Obama’s “kill list”? If there is a list of terrorists to be killed with drone strikes on the soil of a country where we’re not officially at war, shouldn’t it be the president who decides to pull the trigger? For such an extraordinary occasion, ripe with moral issues and potential diplomatic consequences, it is properly the president’s call, not the CIA director’s or the nearest four-star general’s.

This has long been the case. When the United States fired cruise missiles at Osama Bin Laden’s training camp in 1998, it was President Bill Clinton who gave the order. When a team of SEALs raided Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in 2011, few challenged that President Obama held the power to decide whether or not to go in. Why should this be the case for killing Bin Laden but not for killing the No. 2 or No. 3 al-Qaida leader in Yemen or Somalia?

The New York Times article that revealed Obama’s “secret ‘kill list,’” written by the highly scrupulous team of Jo Becker and Scott Shane, noted that the president started taking an active role early in his term, after the first drone strike he approved killed several civilians. From then on, Obama would meet with a dozen senior officials in the White House Situation Room to discuss the latest candidates nominated for death. According to the article, Obama “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan—about a third of the total.”

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Stipulating that the United States needs to do this now and then (more about which, later), isn’t it a good thing that the president is taking responsibility for these borderline cases, that he’s not leaving it up to the spymasters or the generals, whose purview on such matters is narrower and whose tolerance for risk might be looser?

The real objections to Obama’s direct involvement in this business seem to be about tangential matters.

First, there is the matter of Obama himself. These grisly discussions in the Situation Room seem at odds with the image of this liberal president who came to office pledging to step away from the seamier side of President Bush’s war on terror and who, a few months later, won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Times’ headline put the concern neatly: “A Measure of Change—Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.”

Yet the only dissonance here is with a stereotype of Obama. During the 2008 campaign, he spoke out against the Iraq war, torture, and unjustified detention. But he also openly called for escalating the war in Afghanistan and stepping up the war against al-Qaida, even to the point of saying that he would bomb high-level terrorists hiding out in Pakistan, whether or not the Pakistani leaders approved (a position that his opponents in the election derided at the time). The Nobel Peace Prize was always an oddity, more an expression of the jury’s hopes than a reward for any deeds. But go back and read Obama’s speech at the ceremony, which is no less strange, an eloquent defense of a nation’s right to use force.

Second, there is a widespread discomfort over drones—the small, pilotless planes armed with video cameras and smart bombs, controlled by video-game-style joysticks, that rain death on unsuspecting targets from half-a-world away. As Jon Stewart put it (with some deliberate hyperbole), “The president’s killing people with flying robots!” P.W. Singer, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, has said the same thing with a straight face, calling drones “deadly robots” and likening them to the A.I. trading programs that occasionally wreak havoc with the stock market.

It’s conceivable that someday drones will be autonomous, just as conceivably nuclear missiles might be wired to a radar network so that they’re launched automatically upon the earliest warning (whether true or false) of an attack. But nobody has done this yet, and the trends run in the opposite direction.

The official name for drones is “unmanned aerial vehicles,” but the only thing unmanned in the program is the vehicles. Each drone flying over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, or wherever is backed by 43 military personnel rotating in three shifts. They include seven joystick pilots, seven system operators, and five mission coordinators—backed by an intelligence unit, usually at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., consisting of (again, for each drone up in the sky) 66 people, including 34 video crew members, and 18 intelligence analysts. (These numbers come from Air Force public affairs.)

According to a recent Air Force report, unearthed by Wired magazine’s Danger Room website, the military is nearly 600 personnel short of what it needs to man the ever-expanding drone arsenal. If Singer’s fears were on the mark, the Pentagon’s managers might be expected to shave the manpower requirements—especially in times of tight budgets—and make the “robots” more autonomous. In fact, though, they’re recruiting more people to fill the slots.