Turning the Drone Program into a Weekly Lawn Maintenance Program

Greg Miller has the first of what will be three articles on Obama’s efforts to institutionalize drone war in today’s WaPo. After describing the Administration’s efforts to systematize eliminating counterterrorist targets identified through a formalized process, he concludes with a reflection on how such systematization of the drone war might backfire.

In focusing on bureaucratic refinements, the administration has largely avoided confronting more fundamental questions about the lists. Internal doubts about the effectiveness of the drone campaign are almost nonexistent. So are apparent alternatives.

“When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s gone,” said Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center. “When we institutionalize certain things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold that makes it harder to cross back.”

For a decade, the dimensions of the drone campaign have been driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American soil.

Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States — but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for 10 more years.

“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,” Pillar said. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and cons to the methods we use.”

The entire article adds to the sense that drones have become a tactic in search of a strategy. Click through for Bruce Reidel’s analogizing of drones to mowing lawns.

Needless to say, the entire thing is worth reading.

I’m interested, as well, in a few of the details Miller provides.

He describes Brennan’s assumption of the Drone Assassination Czar role reported earlier this year, providing Brennan’s logic for why it’s a good thing he–rather than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs–manages all the targeting.

Now the system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president.

Video-conference calls that were previously convened by Adm. Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been discontinued. Officials said Brennan thought the process shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes.

“What changed is rather than the chairman doing that, John chairs the meeting,” said Leiter, the former head of the NCTC.

One of the reasons Brennan is in the position he is is because he wasn’t considered confirmable: his background with torture (and illegal wiretapping) made him politically toxic. And yet this guy, who hasn’t been Senate confirmed and whose position evades almost all Congressional oversight, is the guy with power over life and death rather than a position over which Congress does exercise clear oversight?

And this detail–which echoes descriptions in earlier Miller stories as well as the Angler 2.0 story from earlier this year–haunts me.

Obama approves the criteria for lists and signs off on drone strikes outside Pakistan, where decisions on when to fire are made by the director of the CIA. But aside from Obama’s presence at “Terror Tuesday” meetings — which generally are devoted to discussing terrorism threats and trends rather than approving targets — the president’s involvement is more indirect.

“The president would never come to a deputies meeting,” a senior administration official said, although participants recalled cases in which Brennan stepped out of the situation room to get Obama’s direction on questions the group couldn’t resolve.

There are a number of famous examples where top White House officials claim to consult the President on an issue but–history ends up showing–never did (I suspect the Plame outing is just one of many things Cheney did this with, for example, and Al Haig used to do it too). Is there any reason we should believe that when Brennan steps out of the room he’s actually consulting Obama, or that he’s representing an apparently contentious debate faithfully? This is classic gatekeeping behavior, and on something as important as targeting, ought to concern everyone.

But it’s not just Brennan we need to worry about. This article also talks about how central the National Counterterrorism Center has become to all this.

The administration has also elevated the role of the NCTC, which was conceived as a clearinghouse for threat data and has no operational capability. Under Brennan, who served as its founding director, the center has emerged as a targeting hub.

Other entities have far more resources focused on al-Qaeda. The CIA, JSOC and U.S. Central Command have hundreds of analysts devoted to the terrorist network’s franchise in Yemen, while the NCTC has fewer than two dozen. But the center controls a key function.

“It is the keeper of the criteria,” a former U.S. counterterrorism official said, meaning that it is in charge of culling names from al-Qaeda databases for targeting lists based on criteria dictated by the White House.

“The keeper of the criteria”! This concerns me, first of all, because NCTC is totally data driven. As the article’s discussion of relative staffing suggests, NCTC’s analysts aren’t doing a whole lot more beyond datamining.

Moreover, while the context here is clearly foreign targeting, remember what happened earlier this year: NCTC got the authority to access all government databases–including social security databases or tax records–that it deems to have a counterterrorist purpose. Which means some very personal data is part of the NCTC borg–along with inaccurate reports such as that Ford Motor Company is a terrorist suspect. That is, NCTC’s are maximalist databases, not terrible accurate ones, and ones that include a lot of American citizens.

And that’s the entity that’s “the keeper of the criteria.”

That’s a problem.

The larger story clearly shows that the Administration is making drone killing a factory process, that needs to be fed with Muslim men like fuel. But it also reinforces the picture of a dangerous concentration of power in some highly unaccountable hands.

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.

15 replies
  1. lefty665 says:

    Do not ask for whom the drone strikes, it strikes for thee.

    Yet another reason to fall in line and vote to re-elect? What is this evil lesser than?

  2. Roman Berry says:

    Anyone thinks that the expansion stops with killing brown people in foreign nations? I don’t. These developments presage an expanding “death from above” dystopia of state control with no real accountability. And yet people will vote for not just this leader under whose watch this Frankenstein’s monster of a program has taken shape but for his opponent under whose watch this Frankenstein’s monster of a program would also be nurtured. In the meantime, people will continue to be labeled terrorist/militant/enemy/threat and die, and by and large we sheep will just get used to it, accept it and perhaps even cheer as the monster comes home for domestic use.

    As Arthur Silber says in his latest essay, voting for the people who give us these things makes us accomplices to murder. One day that murder may be our own.

    I’m not waiting for Caesar. I oppose. With words and vote and wallet and such action as I can muster without earning a label which in the eyes of the executive (and his henchman) that may make me and mine a target, I oppose.

  3. jo6pac says:

    @Roman Berry: Thanks RB for the Arthur Silber link. Thanks EW I’m sure it has become just another job that the janitoral staff will take care in the near future because those others are just to busy to be bothered any more with little details like who gets it today and where.

  4. Jeff Kaye says:

    Sending unmanned drones into the airspace of sovereign nations to kill or assassinate individuals in that country, without a state of declared war, based on invisible criteria except the fatwa of the President of the United States, is terrorism pure and simple, albeit state terrorism.

    The U.S. has abrogated unto itself long ago the right to assassinate at will. Not one person was ever held accountable for the assassinations and coups the U.S. engineered in the 1950s-1970s, and which were the subject of Congressional investigations. The difference now is that the Executive, held by one President Barack Obama, the standard bearer for the Democratic Party of the U.S., openly touts such a right, and Congress remains passive or complicit.

    The wages of terrorism is more terrorism. Certainly those who chose terrorism as the weapon against their perceived weapons have discovered this. The U.S. certainly will discover that state terrorism will beget state terrorism in response, although one cannot rule out casus belli for outright war. Then, the missiles will fly and we will be in no position to judge anything at all.

    Leaving this posting with a lawyer joke: What is the worst thing that can happen to a lawyer in a nuclear war? The great difficulty in finding billable hours.

  5. lefty665 says:

    @P J Evans:

    Dunno, those same advisers didn’t do this sh*t when they were working for Duhbya and Cheney.

    Read Jimmy Carter on Obama abandoning the two state solution, and weep.

    “As for Mr. Obama, a fellow Democrat, the former president said, “The U.S. government policy the last two to three years has basically been a rapid withdrawal from any kind of controversy.”


    That kind of gaffe got Gerald Ford’s head handed to him. Where’s the ridicule today? Guess we need to add Romnography to Romnesia as symptoms of Romnopathy in the DSM V.

  6. lefty665 says:

    @P J Evans: Of course there’s that Brennan guy. He’s continuity with those other bozos you identify. He’s got war crimes in two administrations. Just like Rahm, he’s acting with authority delegated by Obama.

    The drone truly does strike for thee if you vote to affirm it.

  7. ess emm says:

    “And yet [Brennan], who hasn’t been Senate confirmed and whose position evades almost all Congressional oversight, is the guy with power over life and death rather than a position over which Congress does exercise clear oversight?”

    ew, what Congressional oversight does Brennan actually get?

  8. MaryCh says:

    “The larger story clearly shows that the Administration is making drone killing a factory process, that needs to be fed with Muslim men like fuel.”

    So if you’ve got a hammer, not only does everything look like a nail, but you’re also more likely to go looking for nails to rationalize buying the hammer.

    To say nothing of the 21st century MIC bonus.

  9. Synoia says:

    What do you believe implements and adds to the “Disposition matrix”?

    I suggest one reads up on that other matrix that rules our lives, the Google Page Rank Algorithm, and consider its application to the “Disposition Matrix.”

    While we are at it, consider the algorithms that filter information, and reflect on “false positives.”

    There is was a reason for the amendment on “due process”.

  10. lefty665 says:

    @MaryCh: and women, and old people, and children. Here’s Robert Gibbs in case you have not seen it already:

    WASHINGTON — A 16-year-old American boy killed in an Obama administration drone strike “should have [had] a far more responsible father,” Obama campaign senior adviser Robert Gibbs says in a new video released by the group We Are Change.


    But the reporter pressed him, noting that the teen had not renounced his citizenship and was underage. The Atlantic suggests that if Gibbs is giving the genuine rationale for the killing, it’s grounds for impeachment.

    “Again, note that this kid wasn’t killed in the same drone strike as his father,” writes The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf. “He was hit by a drone strike elsewhere, and by the time he was killed, his father had already been dead for two weeks. Gibbs nevertheless defends the strike, not by arguing that the kid was a threat, or that killing him was an accident, but by saying that his late father irresponsibly joined al Qaeda terrorists. Killing an American citizen without due process on that logic ought to be grounds for impeachment.”


  11. ess emm says:

    “You weren’t going to fire a drone if [suspected terrorists] were moving through Turkey or Iran”

    I guess I’m pretty stupid because I’m wondering why Pakistan is okay and Iran isn’t.

    “Officials said Brennan thought the process shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes.”

    Right, because then we wouldnt get articles telling us what an important and powerful man Brennan is. Brennan, Petraeus and Obama are the only current officials involved with drones that are named in the WaPo article. I mean, what do Sean Joyce & Michael Morell need to do to get some ink?

  12. x174 says:

    one aspect of the drone program–besides its purported anonomity and immediate safety in terms of us troops–that is often overlooked are the obvious political benefits associated with it.

    how else to explain why McRomney & Obomber are so uniformly enthusiastic about the high-tech, video gamesque features of the “Disposition Matrix,” or death matrix.

    no other known principles guide them. these explicitly unprincipled 21st American regimes (Bush/Obama) are the manifestation of a ravenous empire running amuck.

    having brennan, death czar, in charge of the death matrix is the icing on the cake of blatant illegality, war crimes, state-sponsored terrorism and surveillance.

    reminds me of the iconography of the ancient Maya at Chichen Itza: death, war and trade

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