The Obama administration's position on civilian casualties is "trust us."
After last week's excellent reporting in Newsweek and the New York Times, many pundits and policymakers are newly aware of America's policy of targeted killings and the existence of "kill lists." This recent surge in interest and awareness in targeted killings is a particularly sad commentary on the lack of interest in foreign affairs--or at least where U.S. bombs are currently falling--since George W. Bush first authorized targeted killings on September 17, 2001. The first such killing outside of a combat zone took place in Yemen on November 3, 2002, and the existence of multiple kill lists across the U.S. government has been known--albeit with important information gaps--for years.
Even if some have just learned of America's escalating use of lethal force against suspected terrorists or militants a decade after the program began, any public interest and debate is welcomed. The passage from the New York Times that received the most attention describes that, according to the Obama administration's methodology, there are inherently few civilian casualties as a result of the "signature strikes" against unnamed people:
It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.
This is not a new story. President Obama simply expanded on a policy initiated by his predecessor, but with more drones at his disposal (there were thirty-four drone combat air patrols [CAPs] when he came into office, now there are fifty-seven) and an even longer list of targets. As a former senior counterterrorism official remarked this weekend regarding signature strikes in Yemen, the "elasticity" of what the Obama administration considers a "direct threat" to the United States "has grown over time." Another former senior official clarified, "There was a little liberalization that went on in the kill lists that allowed us to go after" Yemeni militants opposing the regime in Sana'a, rather than specifically the United States.