The secret list President Obama uses to order drone strikes on unsuspecting militants is being re-vamped under the name "disposition matrix." The name change is now surfacing in a new in-depth report by The Washington Post's Greg Miller, which focuses less on the semantics of the kill list but its increasing sophistication as a tool of American foreign policy. Far from being a mere list of soon-to-be skid marks on the road, the "disposition matrix" is a database of names laid out against the resources available to eradicate specific militants It also combines all the overlapping kill lists used by the various drone programs run by the Pentagon, CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. Miller offers a detailed explanation of the matrix:
The result is a single, continually evolving database in which biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations are all catalogued. So are strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols ...
The database is meant to map out contingencies, creating an operational menu that spells out each agency’s role in case a suspect surfaces in an unexpected spot. “If he’s in Saudi Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” the former official said. “If traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”
According to the report, the disposition matrix is still in development but reflects a "broad consensus" that capture or kill operations are going to be a permanent fixture of American foreign policy for at least another decade, a reality that is now eliciting shrieks from civil libertarian bloggers.
As for the semantics of a disposition matrix, it raises concerns that it will further sanitize the reality of remote-controlled extrajudicial killings. In Washington, drone strikes are already incredibly popular for their ability to eliminate terrorist targets without the risk of American casualties, and during the debates, both Mitt Romney and President Obama vowed to continue their use. To call the "kill list" a "disposition matrix" further distances the public from the secretive killing program, which has been criticized for not eradicating the root causes of terrorism and radicalizing Muslims in the event that innocent civilians are killed. Whatever its simplicity "kill list" described quite accurately what the list was used for.
That descriptive quality was picked up on by Luke Rudkowski of the group We Are Change in his effort to ask politicians at political rallies how they can justify the kill list. In his videos, you can see how politicians would prefer that phrase not be used. Or, in some cases, officials profess to not knowing what the kill list is, such as in this interview with Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz who says "I have no idea what you are talking about" when asked about the kill list. “I’m happy to answer any serious questions you have.”
If politicians can get away with not knowing what a "kill list" is, which has been prominently featured on the front page of The New York Times, who's guessing they'll be able to plead ignorance about something as bureaucratically innocuous-sounding as "disposition matrix"?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.