Targeted Killing Program: America’s Shameful Response to 9/11
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To mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the ACLU released a report that looks at how “ever-expanding claims of national security” have subverted freedoms and justified an assault on civil liberties.
The report scrutinizes racial and religious profiling, the expansion of the surveillance state, the impunity of the Bush administration officials who created a legal justification for torture and the framework that has dominated America since the attacks: the belief that America is in an “everywhere and forever war” which justifies any program, regardless of how it undermines civil liberties or the rule of law.
One of the programs highlighted in the report is the “targeted killing” program, instituted by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11 and “vastly expanded” by the Obama administration. The “legal criteria” for the decision to put someone’s name on a “kill list” is kept secret by the government. As the ACLU notes, “there is no way for the American public to know whether the targeted killing program is lawful, let alone whether the specific people the government kills in the name of our security truly present an imminent threat to our nation.”
As the ACLU notes, the lack of accountability in this system has dangerous consequences:
In the decade since 9/11, the government has repeatedly labeled people as terrorists—including at Guantanamo—only for us to find out later (or for a court to find) that the government’s evidence was exaggerated, wrong, or nonexistent. If we invest the government with unchecked authority to impose death sentences on people who are far from any battlefield and who have never been convicted of or even charged with a crime, it is inevitable that—despite the government’s unverifiable claims to the contrary—innocent people will be executed.
In a recent Frontline episode called Top Secret America, the government’s assassination program supposedly protects us against terrorism. The CIA has expanded a Counterterrorism Center (CTC) and a drone campaign in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) oversees elite military teams that collaborate with the CIA. JSOC “turns” prisoners, who are believed by JSOC to be members of the Taliban, into “cooperative assets.” The “turned” prisoners look at satellite images and video feeds and help find targets that are to be captured or killed.
As Dana Priest and William M. Arkin write in their book Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, US national security agencies keep four “kill lists.” The National Security Council (NSC) has one that is reviewed “at weekly meetings attended by the president and vice president.” The CIA has one, which is put together with no input from the NSC or the Department of Defense. Additionally, the military and JSOC each have their own “kill list.”
The chain of command for “permission to kill” varies, depending on the agency and the target. In the case of the CIA, acting general counsel John Rizzo was the one man who acted as “judge and jury” on terrorism files and had the authority to grant “legal approval” for killings:
Rizzo was involved in daily operations in the decade following the 9/11 attacks. He had been part of the spy world for thirty-three years, and never had he found himself in such a strange and lonely position. He would remove the two-to-five-page dossier from the envelope and read it alone in his office. It was information on the habits and history of the next man whom officers at the CTC wanted to kill — without a hearing, without giving the targeted man a chance to refute the information or even to admit guilt and surrender.
Sophisticated technology obtained through million (sometimes billion) dollar contracts has given the government the ability to carry out assassinations from remote locations. Someone sits behind a screen and locates a target, then waits for a confirmation order before launching a drone attack. Of course, along with the target, others inevitably die too, but there is no more sympathy for them than there is for the target. The government may not know who they were or why they happened to be near the target at an untimely moment, but to the wider public they are to be known forever as dead “militants.”
Asserting the authority to use lethal force and carry out state-sanctioned extrajudicial executions is the culmination of policies and procedures that been justified by the permanent state of war in which we have become ensnared. The world is a battlefield and the targets are part of an “insurgency.” If that is acceptable — nay, applauded — what separates these targeted killings from those performed by security forces in countries like Bangladesh or the Philippines?
The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is a Bangladeshi paramilitary group. This death squad has been responsible for thousands of extrajudicial killings since its establishment in 2004. Bangladesh classifies the killings as “crossfire deaths.”
US State Embassy cables published by WikiLeaks show the US hesitated to offer assistance to the death squad because of its gross human rights violations. However, the US ambassador to Bangladesh writes in one cable that the “enforcement organization” is “best positioned to one day become a Bangladesh version of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
In October of last year, The Guardian reported Bangladeshi shipping minister Shahjahan Khan’s justification for the death squad: “There are incidents of trials that are not possible under the laws of the land. The government will need to continue with extra-judicial killings, commonly called crossfire, until terrorist activities and extortion are uprooted.”
How is Khan’s justification for the brutality of the RAB any different from that of the CIA or JSOC?
In the Frontline episode, Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong (Deputy Commander of CENTCOM from 2000-2003) says, “It’s just war. It’s no different than going to the store to buy some eggs. It’s something you got to do. These guys ─ these are the same people that had just killed over 3,000 people in the Twin Towers and killed over ─ almost 200 people in the Pentagon. This was easy.” Clearly they can not be the same guys, but to people like Lt. Gen. DeLong they are cut from the same cloth and thus the government is entitled to kill them without due process.
Philippines state security forces have been responsible for hundreds of killings and disappearances over the past eight years, targeting activists and journalists among others. The Melo Commission empaneled by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to investigate the problem of extrajudicial and political killings found activists or “militant citizens” had been “liquidated.”
While the government made claims that the armed wing of the Communist Party – the New People’s Army (NPA) — was responsible for the killings, the “enemies of the state” had not been convicted of crimes they were said to have committed. “Proper criminal actions” could have been taken and those who were executed could have been arrested. The victims of killings were not taken into custody because the government regarded many of them as “insurgents.”
Armed men, possibly affiliated with the military, ride up on motorcycles and gun down targets. This is the low-tech version of state-sanctioned targeted killings. Neither the Philippines nor Bangladesh have high-tech kill centers tucked away in office parks, where orders to execute targets are carried out. They don’t sit behind a screen detached from the war zone, far away from the site where explosives will kill both the target and probably a few civilians. These armed men go out and do the deed themselves.
Such extrajudicial assassinations of those suspected of being terrorists or insurgents violate the right to a fair and public trial. They are criminal actions justified because an individual just happens to be in the realm of an armed conflict. Additionally, drones give governments like the US the ability to get away with decisions to kill individuals because they are acting on behalf of a wide state apparatus, making it even more impossible to try that individual in court for war crimes or crimes against humanity.
State-sanctioned use of assassination in the so-called war on terror is supported by a large majority of Americans. A Newsweek poll in October 2001 found fifty-nine percent of Americans would support covert operations to assassinate individuals overseas who gave financial support to terrorism. More than seventy percent supported using military force against terror targets in countries in the Middle East and countries outside the Middle East like Sudan and the Philippines.
This year an AP-GfK poll found eighty-seven percent of Americans thought US forces were justified in the killing of Osama bin Laden. This is fascinating given the fact that in October and November of 2001 around fifty percent of Americans indicated in a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll they wanted to see bin Laden brought to trial. But, the poll results are not surprising given the fact that the political class and the national security establishment has spent the last decade exploiting fear, which ensures only a small number of Americans oppose the use of targeted killings.
The reality is in post-9/11 America citizens cheer when terror suspects are murdered in cold blood in the same way that Texans celebrate capital punishment committed by Rick Perry or George W. Bush.
If the operations of the CIA and JSOC were as unrefined and barbaric as death squads or paramilitary forces, which draw the universal ire of governments around the world, would citizens of this country care? The post-9/11 world has opened a whole cast of people up to the possibility of being victims of state-sponsored violence, a reality which appears to scarcely bother a majority of Americans.
In this environment, it is radical to call for the law to be upheld. It is unpopular to suggest that terror suspects actually deserve trials. It is controversial to support capturing terror suspects alive. It is offensive to demand justice for those suspected of terrorism. Moreover, it is outrageous to suggest those taken alive not be tortured and or that they have a right to due process. Beneath this contempt for the law is a passion for vengeance and panic that someone might not carry out the prosecution properly and anyone suspected of being a terrorist might not pay an appropriate price.
The targeted killing program is emblematic of just how morally compromised Americans have become in the wake of 9/11. Activities that have normally been covert throughout US history – torture, warrantless wiretapping and religious and racial profiling – are now conducted out in the open for a public that delights in the spectacle of violent acts of vengeance. If this is permissible, it’s hard to believe there isn’t any crime or act of violence the US government couldn’t get away with by simply by uttering the words “9/11.”