What is wrong with the President sitting in a room, looking at lists and portraits of people—a Somali man, a seventeen-year-old girl, an American citizen—and deciding whom to kill? That, according to long and troubling articles in both the Times and Newsweek, is a job Barack Obama has assigned himself. His aides, notably John Brennan, his counter-terrorism adviser, portray it as a matter of taking responsibility—if we are going to assassinate someone, or call in a drone strike to take out a camp in Yemen, the President should make the call—as if our only alternative were some sort of rogue operation, with generals or C.I.A. agents shooting at will. But responsibility involves accountability, which is something, in this case, that appears to be badly lacking. Obama has not taken on a burden, but instead has given the Presidency a novel power.
The “kill list” story is a reminder of how much language matters, and how dangerous it is when the plain meaning of a word is ignored. Each might include a mini-glossary: “baseball cards,” for the PowerPoint slides with the biographies and faces of targets; “Terror Tuesday,” meetings where targets are sorted out; “nominations” for death-marked finalists; “personality strikes” that aimed to kill a person, and “signature strikes” that went after a group of people whose names one didn’t know because of the way they seemed, from pictures in the sky, to be acting. (From the Times piece, written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane: “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official.”) Signature strikes were also known as TADS, for terrorist-attack-disruption strikes, or just as “crowd kills.” Both articles explore Obama’s halting efforts to confine signature strikes to Pakistan, rather than Yemen and Somalia, and how he ultimately didn’t, really. This is the kind of attack that, in one incident mentioned by Daniel Klaidman in his Newsweek piece, led to “persuasive” reports of dozens of women and children dying. A lawyer who saw that on “Kill TV,” the feed that let the military and lawyers watch strikes, said later, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”
More disturbing than childish names for brutal things are the absurd meanings ascribed to more sober terms. The key ones are “civilians and combatants,” and “due process.”
How do you minimize civilian casualties in a conflict? Ask a military planner or human-rights organization or just a sensible person and each might come up with a list of tactics, plans, litmus tests. And there were apparently elements of that in the White House’s conversations. But ask a sophist or, as it happens, the C.I.A., and you might get this suggestion: change the definition. As the Times described it, Obama
embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. 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.
In other words, if we thought that you were someone we should kill, and we did kill you, and you look to be the right age to be cast as an extra in a spy movie, you were guilty. Does that mean that, if a house is hit and the bodies of a father, mother, teen-age boy, and middle-school-aged girl are found entangled with each other, two are combatants and two are civilians?
These words are important because of the argument that we have to act to protect ourselves: there is a terrorist on a screen; hit him now. But how are we deciding who a terrorist is? In some cases, we don’t even know the names of people we’re killing, in countries where we are not actually at war. In others, we do know their names, and don’t care who dies with them. (In one strike, in which the identity of the man was known, according to the Times, Obama made a deliberate decision to kill his wife and in-laws along with him.)
The method we have built, over a couple of hundred years, for sorting out questions of guilt and innocence and probable cause, is due process. And that may be the most degraded phrase of all.
The Obama Administration has sought and killed American citizens, notably Anwar al-Awlaki. As the Times noted, “The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.” In other words, it’s due process if the President thinks about it. One wonders how low the standard for “internal deliberations” are—if it might be enough if Obama mulled it over while walking his dog. And if an American whom the President decides is a threat can be assassinated in Yemen, where Awlaki was hit, why not in London, or Toronto, or Los Angeles? (Awlaki’s teen-age son, an American citizen who had not been accused of anything, died in a separate strike.)
These are not far-fetched concerns. The Times quoted Michael Hayden, who served as the director of the C.I.A. under George Bush:
“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”
As Jane Mayer has written in The New Yorker, drone strikes, as opposed to ground troops, bring with them a comforting illusion of distance. Picturing Obama going through the lists in a bright office in Washington shows where that daydream leads, and how deceptive it can be. A drone-based conflict may, in the short run, keep some troops from harm, but it may also take the debate about war and peace out of the public sphere and into what is, in political terms, a much darker space.
Brennan and other officials interviewed by the Times and Newsweek said that Obama had enormous faith in himself. It would be more responsible, though, if he had less—if he thought that he was no better than any other President we’ve had or ever will. The point isn’t just the task, or burden, he takes on, but the machine he has built for his successors to use. Perhaps, just to suggest a range, he could picture each of the Republican contenders from this past season being walked through the process, told how it works, shown some of those video clips with tiny people and big explosions, and taking it for a test drive. Never mind whether Obama, in particular, sighs or loses sleeps or tosses a coin when he chooses a target: What would it mean for a bad, or craven, or simply carelessly accommodating President to do so? In the end we are not really being asked to trust Obama, or his niceness, but the office of the Presidency. Do we?