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."

By 2004, however, the United States largely stopped detaining suspected operatives from Pakistan, and instead began killing them with armed Predator drones.

Initially, the intended targets were a limited number of well-known senior al-Qaeda and Taliban officials. Between 2004 and the end of 2007, there were only ten drone strikes in Pakistan. However, in mid-2008, President Bush authorized a vast expansion in the scope and intensity of the use of drones in Pakistan. Since then, there have been an additional 250 strikes. As David Sanger reported, Bush lowered the threshold for an attack to what one anonymous U.S. official described as the "reasonable man" standard: "If it seemed reasonable, you could hit it."

Now, nameless militants whose behavior--as determined by "pattern of life" surveillance--bears the "signature characteristics" of providing "operational support" to terrorist organizations can be targeted by drone strikes.

In Somalia, the United States backed the Ethiopian invasion and regime change effort that began in December 2006. On January 7, 2007, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunship flying out of an airport in eastern Ethiopia fired on a convoy of escaping Islamic militants in southern Somalia. Since then, there have been an estimated six more attempted targeted killings there, including by AC-130s, U.S. Navy cruise missiles, special operations raids, and, as of this past June, armed drones.

In early 2010, President Obama authorized the killing of a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric born in New Mexico. U.S. intelligence officials claimed that al-Awlaki played an operational role in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted to attack the American homeland. A former senior legal official in the Bush administration was unaware of Americans being approved for killing under the former president.

In Pakistan, CIA armed drones have killed over 2,000 people overall. One U.S. official recently made the unbelievable claim that less than .0025% of all people killed by drones were civilians.

Last week, Washington Post reporters revealed:

"The president has given JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] the rare authority to select individuals for its kill list--and then to kill, rather than capture, them. Critics charge that this individual man-hunting mission amounts to assassination, a practice prohibited by U.S. law. JSOC's list is not usually coordinated with the CIA, which maintains a similar but shorter roster of names."

The main objectives of U.S. targeted killings are to disrupt potential attacks on U.S. soil, to protect deployed troops, and to minimize threats to allies or partner states. The U.S. government employees who plan and conduct these operations are careful and highly-deliberate in the decision and application of lethal force.

However, significant questions for policymakers remain: In what the Pentagon calls a "period of persistent conflict," when will this policy of targeted killing end? And--most importantly--who can't America kill?

This article originally appeared at CFR.org