Between them, the NYT and the Daily Beast published over 10,000 words on Obama’s drone assassination program yesterday. Both stories rolled out the new acronym the Administration wants us to use: terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or TADS. Neither of them, in those over 10,000 words, once mentioned Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16 year old American citizen son also killed in a drone strike last year.
And while both stories break important new ground and challenge the Administration’s narrative in key ways, the prioritization of TADS over Abdulrahman in them is a pretty clear indication of the success with which the Administration pushed a certain agenda in these stories.
As I suggested at the end of this post, I think John Brennan hoped to use them to reframe recent changes to the drone program to make them more palatable.
Drone Strikes before They Got Worse
Before I lay out the new spin these stories offer on the signature strikes and vetting process rolled out last month, let’s recall what was included in the drone program before these recent changes, in addition to the killing of a 16-year old American citizen.
According to the NYT, the Administration assumed that, “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good” and therefore all military age males in a strike zone could be targeted. A former senior counterterrorism official calls earlier drone targeting, “guilt by association.” Of signature strikes in Pakistan, a senior (apparently still-serving) official joked “that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.” And one of Obama’s top political advisors, David Axelrod, was attending targeting meetings, injecting a political taint on the program.
Even with all of that, these stories don’t explain how the intense vetting process they describe resulted in the al-Majala strike that made Jeh Johnson think about going to Catholic confession and “shook” John Brennan and President Obama. Or, of course, how we came to kill a 16 year old American citizen.
So all of that was in place before the recent changes to the drone assassination program made it worse. Don’t worry, though, it’s TADS now.
With all that in mind–Abdulrahman and the guilt by association and the three guys doing jumping jacks–let’s look at how these stories reframe signature strikes in Yemen and White House consolidation of the vetting.
Assassination Czar John Brennan’s Drone Shop
Consider the way the articles describe the targeting process. The NYT–relying on a single source, “an administration official who has watched [Obama] closely”–describes a very aggressive vetting process led by the DOD, then nods to a “parallel” process at CIA in countries where it leads the vetting.
The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda.
“What’s a Qaeda facilitator?” asked one participant, illustrating the spirit of the exchanges. “If I open a gate and you drive through it, am I a facilitator?” Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.
The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He 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.
Since for the most part, DOD has managed the Yemen and Somalia strikes, while CIA managed the Pakistan ones, this conflates the vetting for personality strikes targeted at known people and the signature strikes the CIA has targeted against men doing jumping jacks in Pakistan. Somehow, al-Majala and Abdulrahman still got through that vetting process, but the exhaustive DOD one was, for the most part, far more rigorous than the CIA one.
Now compare that description of the DOD vetting process with the one the AP gave on May 21, which it says is “mostly defunct.”
The previous process for vetting them, now mostly defunct, was established by Mullen early in the Obama administration, with a major revamp in the spring of 2011, two officials said.
Under the old Pentagon-run review, the first step was to gather evidence on a potential target. That person’s case would be discussed over an interagency secure video teleconference, involving the National Counterterrorism Center and the State Department, among other agencies. Among the data taken into consideration: Is the target a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates; is he engaged in activities aimed at the U.S. overseas or at home?
If a target isn’t captured or killed within 30 days after he is chosen, his case must be reviewed to see if he’s still a threat. [my emphasis]
That is, that free-ranging discussion, the process by which targets could come off the list as well as get put on it? At least according to the AP, it is now defunct–or at least “less relevant.” Read more