The Obama administration has conducted a drone warfare campaign in many places around the globe in the past four years. Nowhere has this campaign been more catastrophic, both in human life lost and in anti-American blowback, than in Pakistan. These drone attacks, which have killed hundreds of civilians over the last eight years, have served to increase the tension between the United States and Pakistan since President Obama escalated them in his first term. This drone warfare has since expanded to countries such as Yemen and Somalia, with little oversight from Congress or the American people. This is not to mention the fact that the highest members of the executive branch have asserted in public their right to select which “terrorist” suspects to assassinate by air.
The Washington Post reported this week on a new set of rules the administration is crafting for the drone program. These would be the same rules the administration hastily crafted last year when the possibility of a Romney election win seemed too close for comfort. Eerily dubbed a “playbook,” this secretive set of rules, crafted by the CIA and supremely classified, seeks to spell out the formal rules the administration uses in selecting which targets to go after in the name of protecting Americans. The story also mentions the fact that the major theater of this program, Pakistan, will be exempt from the new rules for at least a year. Here are some of the topics that might be found in this “playbook:”
Among the subjects covered in the playbook are the process for adding names to kill lists, the legal principles that govern when U.S. citizens can be targeted overseas and the sequence of approvals required when the CIA or U.S. military conducts drone strikes outside war zones.
This is disturbing on several levels. The first issue is the word being used to describe such a set of laws meant to codify assassination into the laws governing US foreign policy. This word makes it seem as if those masters of the universe in the executive branch view the “War on Terror” as nothing more than a game, not unlike the one played by rival powers England and Russia a century ago over the conquest of Asia. This does not speak well about the level of seriousness these key players have given to these awesome powers of life and death. As Paul Pillar sums up in The National Interest:
It is also interesting that this soon-to-be-completed document is referred to as a “playbook.” In football, a playbook is a very tactical manual that organizes the quick thinking that coaches and players have to do on each play. If you see the opponent lining up a certain way, you can draw on the playbook for a play that has a chance to work well over the next 30 seconds. But the playbook doesn't provide any help in bigger decisions with larger and longer term consequences, such as whether to leave your injured star quarterback in the game. Similarly, having a playbook on assassinations sounds like it is apt to be a useful guide for making the quick decision whether to pull the trigger on a Hellfire missile when a suspected terrorist is in the sights of a drone. But it probably will not, as far as we know, be of any help in weighing larger important issues such as whether such a killing is likely to generate more future anti-U.S. terrorism because of the anger over collateral casualties than it will prevent by taking a bad guy out of commission. By routinizing and institutionalizing a case-by-case set of criteria, there is even the hazard that officials will devote less deliberation than they otherwise would have to such larger considerations because they have the comfort and reassurance of following a manual.
Indeed this sequence is already happening in the form of “signature strikes,” which the WaPo story describes as “the CIA’s practice of approving strikes in Pakistan based on patterns of suspicious behavior…even when the agency does not have clear intelligence about the identities of the targets.” The second, more disturbing issue is how this “assassination playbook” may be used to streamline the drone attacks so that a checklist of “suspicious behavior” may be met in order for the suspected terrorist to be killed from above. The biggest danger here is that these rules, once created, codified, and implemented, will make it all too easy for a future American president to deem whomever he or she sees fit to be killed and then claim it’s all legal according to the “playbook.” This danger, while not exactly new given the revelation of the President’s “Kill List” last year, poses an immense challenge to rule of law in this country and those charged with enforcing it.
One way in which the American populace and its government can assert a corrective role in providing oversight for these programs is to simply shine light upon them. This is something Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is attempting to do for the confirmation of John Brennan, lead architect of President Obama’s terrorism policies, as CIA director. This “playbook” needs to see the light of day so that it can be judged by the American people, the Congress, and legal scholars, not just those officials hand-picked by the White House to interpret the rules of assassination. If the administration truly believed these rules were a fair guideline to the use of such power it would not hesitate to allow a full analysis. That it does not (but has no concern about some details leaking to the press) speaks of a lack of trust in their arguments. The approval process for this “playbook” should be slowed and made open before these new dictates become the law of the land.