The “Kill List” Is a Shiny Object

I recognize the term “Kill List” has some political advantages. It’s a concise way to convey the cold brutality of our use of drones. Launching a petition for a Do Not Kill list–on the White House’s own website!–is a clever use of social media.

But the “Kill List” is a shiny object.

That’s because it propagates the myth that everyone we’re killing is a known terrorist. It propagates the myth that the outdated vetting process John Brennan wants to publicize to convince the American public we use a very deliberative process before killing people with drones covers all drone killings. It propagates the myth that the government plans out each and every drone strike so thoroughly as to have the President sign off on it.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war.

It propagates the myth that the only innocents killed in drone strikes–19 year old Yemeni farmer Nasser Salim killed in the Fahd al-Quso drone strike, the girl Baitullah Mehsud had just married, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki–had the poor judgment to stand next to one of the named people on one of America’s Kill Lists.

The reference to and focus on a Kill List hides precisely the most controversial use of drones outside of Afghanistan: the targeting of patterns, not people.

There is absolutely no reason to believe, for example, that Obama–or even John Brennan–knew the identity of the up to 8 civilians who were killed by a drone in Jaar, Yemen, on May 15. All anyone knew about them, according to reporting, is that they ran out after an earlier drone strike to look at the impact site. Boom! They were never on any Kill List, but they are nonetheless just as dead as Quso is.

At precisely the moment the press reported the White House had embraced signature strikes in Yemen and pulled control of those strikes into the White House, John Brennan rolled out a propaganda campaign to focus on the deliberation that goes into the Kill List–that is, into drone killings not covered by the new signature strike policy.

The effort, very clearly, is an attempt to distract attention from those drone killings that don’t involve the kind of deliberation so carefully portrayed by the NYT.

A shiny object. One that is working.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

22 replies
  1. Roman Berry says:

    The reference to and focus on a Kill List hides precisely the most controversial use of drones outside of Afghanistan: the targeting of patterns, not people.

    Even when we aren’t using drones, as in when there is an Apache helicopter gunship on station, we have targeted “patterns.” Recall this video from the Iraq War? (Turn your sound down before watching. Watch a few times if needed. And ask someone who is familiar with farming and tractors if you’re not sure what it is you’re seeing.)

    Also, check some of the statements of surviving relatives of drone victims in this Harper’s link: Eye of the Drone


    One of my brother’s sons, Din Mohammed, whom I was very fond of, was killed by a drone missile on March 17, 2011. He was one of about forty people who died in this strike. … These men were gathered together for a jirga, a gathering of tribal elders to solve disputes. This particular jirga was to solve a disagreement over chromite, a mineral mined in Waziristan. My nephew was attending the jirga because he was involved in the transport and sale of this mineral. My brother, Din Mohammed’s father, arrived at the scene of the strike shortly following the attack. He saw death all around him, and then he found his own son. My brother had to bring his son back home in pieces. That was all that remained of Din Mohammed.

    I saw my father about three hours before the drone strike killed him. News of the strike didn’t reach me until later, and I arrived at the location in the evening. When I got off the bus near the bazaar, I immediately saw flames in and around the station. The fires burned for two days straight. I went to where the jirga had been held. There were still people lying around injured. The tribal elders who had been killed could not be identified because there were body parts strewn about. The smell was awful. I just collected the pieces of flesh that I believed belonged to my father and placed them in a small coffin.

    The sudden loss of so many elders and leaders in my community has had a tremendous impact. Everyone is now afraid to gather together to hold jirgas and solve our problems. Even if we want to come together to protest the illegal drone strikes, we fear that meeting to discuss how to peacefully protest will put us at risk of being killed by drones.

    Does Obama know these things? How can he not? And do you recall Obama joking about killing the Jonas Brothers with a drone strike? That was in 2010, well after he was aware of the deaths of innocent civilians in drone strikes in the first year of his administration. What kind of person, knowing that he has killed innocents, can joke like that? Not a joking matter…

  2. What Constitution? says:

    The “8 civilians” who “ran out after an earlier drone strike to look at the impact site” were targeted because they obviously were supplying “material support for people who were probably up to no good”, right?

    We’re fighting “Terrorists”. To identify “Terrorists” with a degree of certainty deemed sufficient to justify their execution at any point on the face of the earth, our government oh-so-carefully studies the situation to determine whether there is a “group” of “males of potential military age” and whether they’re “probably up to no good.” Trigger. Once they’re dead, it’s application of previous rules to target “responders”, right? So it’s only logical to off those who come out to see if anyone needs help, right? And indeed, there’s always the hope that we might end up netting a whole battalion of people “potentially up to no good” or, at least, “providing material support to people who [were] potentially up to no good” if we can get a good chain reaction going to the follow-up strikes. And people criticize the thought process? And, also, we have to keep doing this until the people who live in those parts of the world stop hating us for our freedoms, and this will happen really soon for sure.

    And as long as it all starts with a Kill List satisfactory to The President (or at least to The Current President) it’s OK because we are, after all, At War.

    The cumulative depression factor associated with any effort to explain what we’re doing and how we live with ourselves while doing it certainly is getting increasingly hard to bear, though.

  3. phred says:

    I see your point EW, but Brennan’s bit of theater is still valuable. The kill list clarifies the image of our very own Caesar turning his thumb up or down. That image is every bit as capricious and arbitrary as attacking patterns of shadows on the sand.

  4. phred says:

    @emptywheel: Fair enough, but I would argue that Caesar Obama’s thumb is every bit as arbitrary as John Brennan throwing darts at a map of the Middle East while blindfolded.

    If there is one thing that the last decade has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt it is that our “intelligence” is deeply flawed and not to be taken at face value, especially when in the hands of our federal politicians.

  5. Charley Bowman says:

    Thank you for creating the “Do Not Kill List Petition”….Last year I twice made the attempt to get a “Ground the Drones” petition going at the Whitehouse website, and twice it never showed up for consideration for others to sign on to….I think the Whitehouse censors were mentally asleep when your petition appeared on their screens.

  6. lysias says:

    @Roman Berry:

    And do you recall Obama joking about killing the Jonas Brothers with a drone strike?

    It was just like Bush joking about the WMD’s.

  7. john francis lee says:

    Thanks for moving a bit of the focus from the … deliberate murders … to the random murders.

    But this whole business is the sordid act of a rogue, terrorist state … our good ole USA.

    Nine eleven was like pulling the plug in a bathtub … every drop of decency in America has circled then run out the drain.

    We need to rollback and redo the 21st Century. Really.

    Start by never voting for a duopol again. We have to develop a real alternative. I certainly hope that this bizarre and grotesque piece of PR from the WH/NYTimes amalgam is met with shocked revulsion on the part of all Americans. But I’ve lived in Thailand for the past decade, have not returned, and no longer have a “feel” for what my fellow Americans ‘think’ about this devilish descent our nation has taken. The WH/NYTimes certainly have the funds and saavy to ‘know’ what they can get away with … if they get away with this … we’re just going to have to die in our seats when they fly our plane into the ground and we do all crash and burn.

  8. Gitcheegumee says:


    Does anyone EVEN remember Bush joking about the WMD NOT being found under the carpet in the Oval office,at the Press Correspondents dinner,many years ago?

  9. Roman Berry says:

    @lysias: I recall that. I also recall liberal outrage over the utter crassness of it and pontification about how it revealed Bush’s lack of character.

  10. jayackroyd says:

    More briefly, it conveys the idea that there IS a list, beforehand, and therefore the actual victims were people on such a list.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nicely put, EW. In one sense, the “kill list” is like Joe McCarthy’s list of “communist agents” supposedly working inside the USG. Mr. McCarthy was never sure how many there were, 250, 180, 92, 88. The number varied with his venue. The point was to get his credulous audience to focus on how many, not “whether” there were any. And certainly they were not to ask how Mr. McCarthy acquired his list, who was put on it by whom and why, and how the wrongly accused might get off it with their names, their families, their careers intact. (The answer to the latter was the same as how does a modern American get off the “no fly” list; never.)

    If Mr. Obama’s public only ask “who’s on the list”, they will never ask those questions either. Nor will they know why Mr. Obama should have such a “list” or the power to ask for and get it with no other questions being asked.

    Me, I’d like to see the president keep a list of his legislative successes in promoting domestic jobs, public education and health care. My guess is that’s a much shorter list, assuming there even is one.

  12. john francis lee says:

    Yeah … it’s like Joe McCarthy’s list … except Barack the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Obama murders the people on his list … and anyone else standing by.

    Sometimes he comes back to kill those desperate people who’ve come to help the people – their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters – he’s maimed and murdered the first time around.

    Barack Obams is a murderer and a war criminal of the first water, as well as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate … that had to have been bought and paid for!

    He should be doing hard time in prison.

    But he’s still the President of the United States of America,

    Ho hum, Yawn. So what. I guess.

  13. joanneleon says:

    I know. It is a shiny object and it is working, even among people who have the best intentions and who tend to keep up with this stuff. I’ve been trying to get the word out there as best I can about the shiny object.

  14. adria says:

    I know its missed since we are already engaged in the discussion on their terms. The real and most fundamental controversy is quite simple: the murder of people.

  15. tjallen says:

    @What Constitution?: you said: “The cumulative depression factor associated with any effort to explain what we’re doing and how we live with ourselves while doing it certainly is getting increasingly hard to bear, though.”


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