What Is the Overlap between Signature Strikes and “Side Payment” Counter-Insurgency Drone Strikes?

ProPublica has a very worthwhile article drawing attention back to signature drone strikes.

My favorite part is their focus on John Brennan’s effort to dodge a question about signature strikes last year, which happened not long before anonymous sources working on Brennan’s behalf launched his Kill List Shiny Object campaign, which served to distract from the signature strikes he had just approved for use in Yemen.

Brennan was asked about signature strikes last April but sidestepped the question. He replied: “You make reference to signature strikes that are frequently reported in the press. I was speaking here specifically about targeted strikes against individuals who are involved.”

He continued that “everything we do, though, that is carried out against Al Qaeda is carried out consistent with the rule of law, the authorization on the use of military force, and domestic law… that’s the whole purpose of whatever action we use, the tool we use, it’s to prevent attack [sic] and to save lives.”

The article also catalogs how Brennan and the Administration have dodged questions from Jerry Nadler, John Conyers, and Bobby Scott, as well as from John McCain.

The administration has rebuffed repeated requests from Congress to provide answers – even in secret.


Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent his own letter to Brennan asking several pointed questions on signature strikes.

“How do ‘signature strikes’ square with your statement that targeted killing operations are only approved when a targeted individual poses a ‘significant threat to U.S. interests?’” McCain asked, quoting a speech Brennan gave on drone strikes last April.

“How can the Administration be certain it is not killing civilians in areas, like many parts of Yemen and Pakistan, where virtually all men, including civilians, carry weapons?” the letter continued.

A McCain spokesman said the senator had not received a response.

In any case, go read the article. But read it in conjunction with this remarkable Lawfare post on How to Make a Kill List, from Gregory McNeal, who once worked in counterterroism at State (though this work derives from a range of sources). McNeal has a follow-up on network analysis, which I’ll return to later.

McNeal’s post is notable because it is, as far as I know, one of the first times that someone has gone on the record admitting that our drone war is, in part, targeting people our allies pick, effectively us waging their counterinsurgency for them.

There are three basic categories of targets who might find their way onto a kill-list: (1) Targets who fall within the AUMF, and its associated forces interpretations [AUMF Targets], (2) targets who fall within the terms of a covert action finding [Covert Action Targets], and (3) targets provided by allies in a non-international armed conflict in which the U.S. is a participant. [Ally Targets or derisively “side payment targets.”] [my emphasis; all other brackets original]

“Side payment targets.” Wow. Evocative.

The reason I say this article should be read in conjunction with the ProPublica one is that the two places where we know the US is engaging in counterinsurgency targets, Pakistan and Yemen, are also the two places we know we’ve used signature strikes. (Though the rise in drone strikes in Afghanistan last year suggests we may be moving to this model there, as well.)

Moreover, we know the increase in signature strikes in Pakistan coincided with our focus on Pakistan’s enemy, the Pakistani Taliban, rather than the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda; indeed, some of the more spectacular funeral and civillian strikes involved this focus.

And Daniel Klaidman’s revelation that Brennan approved signature strikes in Yemen based on entreaties from old friends make it clear the impetus was AQAP’s strength as an insurgency in Yemen, not al Qaeda per se.

Then, in the spring of 2012, with Yemen falling into chaos and AQAP gaining more and more territory, Yemeni officials—with whom Brennan had close ties going back to his days as a CIA station chief in the region—beseeched Brennan to help. The Yemeni Army was collapsing under the brutal assault; soldiers were being crucified and beheaded by the jihadis. By April 2012, Brennan and Obama finally relented and permitted signature strikes in the country.

Those who defend this decision point out that it would have been a catastrophe for U.S. security if significant parts of the country had fallen to AQAP, which was intent on attacking the American homeland. Yet some inside the administration were critical. Says one senior administration official of Brennan’s history in Yemen: “He responded to the personal appeals because he has a long history with these guys.” In other words: Brennan’s lawyerly preference for rules and constraints may sometimes have taken a backseat to emotion.

In other words, signature strikes seem to accompany our move into what are more correctly called counterinsurgency strikes, whether or not signature and counterinsurgency strikes are the same thing.

Note, too, that the Administration’s squeamishness about at least some of the 7 extant targeted killing memos seems to derive from delicate agreements with Pakistan and Yemen.

A senator who sits on the Intelligence Committee and has read some of the memos also said that the still-unreleased memos contain secret protocols with the governments of Yemen and Pakistan on how targeted killings should be conducted. Information about these pacts, however, were not in the OLC opinions the senator has been allowed to see.

I have suggested — though to some degree it’s a guess — that signature strikes would require distinct legal analysis.  Presumably, all the more so, if we engaged in such sloppy targeting as part of a deal with the host country — a “side payment” — to target their internal enemies.

I’m not suggesting there’s a one-to-one correspondence between our signature strike campaigns and counterinsurgency targeting. While that seems to be the case for Yemen, the Pakistani example is far more complex.

But in addition to maintaining a focus on signature strikes, it is probably time to pay more attention to the way we’re using drone strikes to conduct other countries’ counterinsurgency campaigns.

7 replies
  1. scribe says:

    Not a surprise that other countries would want the USG to do these kind of side-payment strikes. The US has some awesome toys in drones, which make it unneccessary for the local government to actually put people on the ground to do their killing for them. And, when all breaks loose after a funeral or wedding explodes, the local government can say “couldn’t have been us; we don’t have drones.”

    After all, when you come down to it, statecraft is an exercise in spending lives. The lives of people other than the statesmen doing the spending, of course.

  2. SpanishInquisition says:

    Talk about change we can believe in! Obama should be so proud for turning our government into Murder Inc by being assassins-for-hire.

  3. ess emm says:

    From our standpoint the issue is about transparency and democratic control. For the Executive, the military and the spooks it’s all about secrecy, hierarchy and doing whatever they want.

    Congress needs to push back hard. I am somewhat encouraged that Brennan hasnt been confirmed yet.

  4. Snoopdido says:

    From this evening’s New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/world/middleeast/john-kerry-diplomatic-trip.html?ref=world) comes a suggestion that there is something like a new OLC opinion that frees the US government’s from its dependence on the 9/11 AUMF for its counterterrorism strikes and operations:

    “There was broad agreement among policy makers and intelligence officials at a meeting of President Obama’s top national security deputies at the White House last week that Mr. Belmokhtar and members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb should be aggressively pursued, according to one senior American official who insisted on anonymity so he could discuss internal deliberations. But no decision appears to have been reached on whether to make a formal proposal to the Algerians.

    The idea of taking stronger action in the region has been supported in recent months by Michael Sheehan, the senior counterterrorism official at the Pentagon, and Daniel Benjamin, who until December was the senior State Department counterterrorism official. In the past, State Department lawyers have questioned whether the military action approved by Congress against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks authorized efforts to target extremists who were not clearly linked to the group. But according to some officials, those legal arguments have recently been overcome.”

  5. thatvisionthing says:

    You mean the first try at assassinating Awlaki?


    MARCY WHEELER: Right. I mean, that’s one of the other underlying tensions. We know, because William Webster has told us in no uncertain terms that the day they tried to kill Awlaki in 2009 he was not considered operational. So the entire white paper doesn’t apply because it’s only supposed to apply to operational – senior operational leaders. They didn’t believe him to be that. But we also know that after they missed, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the then-president of Yemen, went to David Petraeus and said, “Oops, we missed Wuhayshi and Awlaki,” and made it very clear that Awlaki was one of the two targets. And also referred to him as the “cleric” – he didn’t refer to him as having any tie to AQAP, and so that memo makes it very clear that Awlaki was a named target of that strike.

    Links in quote:

    And who’s Wuhayshi/al-Wahishi, and who wanted him dead, Petraeus or Saleh? Just trying to follow along.

  6. shekissesfrogs says:

    So does that disposition matrix have a slot for cash or what?

    Makes ya wonder when David Cameron might be inclined to call one in if the Scottish get all uppity and start asking to secede along with their oil, like the Yemeni Houthi, and whether the President might it consider it or not.(he did send back their bust). The irish have lucked out with McDonough and Brennan– they probably wont agree to accept requests to drop cluster bombs their red headed cousins.

  7. GKJames says:

    Since the national security apparatus went on steroids in 2001, I’ve been trying to figure out the seemingly mysterious imperatives that drove the radical departure from existing legal norms. It finally makes sense: What we’re seeing is the apotheosis of long-standing features of US policy: allergy to detail, addiction to high-tech shrapnel as THE tool to resolve geopolitical issues, and obsession with immediacy.

    Which is why this piece on signatures strikes must be seen in combination with Amnesty v. Clapper. Together, they represent the we-really-can’t-be-bothered approach. How else to explain signature strikes and the NSA’s hoovering every extant communication?

    In each case, existing laws and Constitutional processes are to hand, ready and able to do what needs doing. But they take work and attention to detail. And there’s the democracy thing, too, where somebody’s always squawking and asking questions, which is really annoying.

    Signature strikes — which by definition aren’t directed at a threat that Art. II empowers the president to mitigate — are way too convenient a tool in furthering other policy objectives. (Got some malcontents you need us to take care of for you? Noooo problem.) Sure, we could in fact bother to find out who we’re killing and why, but behavior patterns are good enough for us. Just tell us where you need us to deliver the ordnance.

    It’s the same with surveillance. Get a warrant and surveil away to your heart’s content. But, no, that would require paperwork (and that’s all it would take, given the FISA court’s genuflection to the national security behemoth it serves).

    And here you have it: the quintessence of American convenience.

Comments are closed.