Who Can't America Kill?

Since September 11, the threshold for who and where the U.S. military and intelligence community can kill has been increasingly lowered, with no end in sight

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An Afghan boy stands next to the body of a girl killed during an operation in Nangarhar province / Reuters

Capitalizing on public interest in the death of Osama Bin Laden and the tenth anniversary of 9/11, a series of books and articles have been published assessing the ability of the U.S. military and intelligence community to find and kill terrorists. Stocked with cool-sounding acronyms, anonymous tough-guy quotes, and impressive body counts, the reports purport to describe top secret operations that are usually only referenced in press briefings or in open congressional testimony, and would lead one to believe that the Pentagon's core organizing principle is lethality.

9-11 Ten Years LaterAll of these reports feature a similar pattern: a vivid vignette describing a mission to capture or kill a suspected militant or terrorist operative; selectively released operational details, such as the number of night raids conducted or of senior terrorist leaders killed; an emphasis on the effectiveness of the U.S. government's "hunter-killer" architecture and how it has improved markedly since 9/11; and, more often than not, an omission of the key fact that very few such operations actually end in someone being killed.

As compared to the monitoring, arresting, interrogating, or detaining of suspects, however, most worrisome is the expanding policy of killing them. Until recently, targeted killings by the United States have received relatively little media or public attention. However, the stark reality of the post-9/11 era is that the threshold for who and where the U.S. military and intelligence community can kill has been increasingly lowered, with no end in sight.

In the wake of the African Embassy Bombings in 1998, President Clinton issued three top secret "Memoranda of Understanding," which authorized the CIA to kill Bin Laden and his key lieutenants--fewer than ten people overall--only if they resisted arrest.  The CIA interpreted the memoranda as insufficient by limiting the use of lethal force. As George Tenet noted in his memoir, "Almost every authority granted to CIA prior to 9/11 made it clear that just going out and assassinating [Bin Laden] would not have been permissible or acceptable."

After 9/11, President George W. Bush made the policy of targeted killing more explicit. Just six days after the attacks, Bush signed a Memorandum of Notification that authorized the CIA to kill, without further presidential approval, some two dozen al-Qaeda leaders who appeared on an inital "high-value target list."

Included on this list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, an operational planner in the al-Qaeda cell that attacked the U.S.S. Cole. On November 3, 2002, a Predator drone killed al-Hariti, four Yemenis, and Ahmed Hijazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen and the ringleader of an alleged terrorist sleeper cell in Lackawanna, New York. This was the first targeted killing outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the first such killing of a naturalized U.S. citizen.

In Pakistan, the U.S. counterterrorism approach after 9/11 focused primarily on law enforcement and intelligence exploitation through arrest and interrogation (including torture) followed by either release or imprisonment. As the State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2002 report stated: "The Government of Pakistan arrested and transferred to US custody nearly 500 suspected al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists."

Presented by

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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