Loose Canons

Killing Them Softly

Obama's "kill list" tactic is assuredly doing nothing to win the war on terror.

By 6.4.12

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Between December 7, 1941, and September 2, 1945, a clarity of thought and purpose pervaded America. We understood who our enemies were and undertook as a nation to bring about their utter defeat. After September 1945, that clarity was dulled in Korea and by the midpoint of the Vietnam War it had disappeared altogether.

We never had that clarity after the war that was brought to our homeland on September 11, 2001. Since then, we have muddled through bereft of the unifying knowledge of who the enemy really is and the pervasive purpose of bringing about its defeat. Now we have another episode of ad hockery: a U.S. president has undertaken to choose personally who shall be targeted for what the left used to call "non-judicial killing" and to reveal the once-secret killing program to his media allies.

The New York Times May 29 story on President Obama's "Secret Kill List" put together the pieces of the process Obama established to identify terrorists and decide himself who would be targeted for drone strikes. The article was produced in cooperation with the White House. (In the long and tendentious piece, the Times claimed three dozen interviews with current and former Obama administration officials as the story's foundation.) It was clearly intended to portray the heroic and moral role the president had created for himself but instead demonstrated how undecided the president is, and how timorous his approach to defeating the terrorist threat remains.

There have been a number of articles analyzing and criticizing how the president goes about deciding who will be killed and how. But many of them either pass by the most important issues or simply get it wrong.

Fox News's Judge Andrew Napolitano condemned the program as illegal. But the judge apparently decided his case without all the facts. Saying that the president's powers were bound by the Constitution and our laws, he concluded that Obama's program wasn't lawful because it lacked the necessary statutory authorization. However, as I have been repeatedly informed by members of the intelligence community, the CIA has secret lethal authorities. These statutory authorities almost certainly provide the legal basis for the targeted killings of terrorists.

My sources will not describe those authorities because they were enacted in secret and remain so. There's no validity to the point that secretly enacted laws are themselves unlawful: there is nothing in the Constitution barring them. Though uncommon, such laws are passed when some aspect of our intelligence or military operations require them. For example, top secret intelligence satellite programs need the authorization of Congress -- and congressional appropriations -- to be brought to fruition. That same congressional action almost certainly is the basis for Obama's use of CIA and military assets to target and kill terrorists.

Congress's "Authorization of Military Force," passed soon after 9/11, gave the president the authority to attack those responsible for the attacks, meaning al Qaeda. That explains Obama's limitation of the targeted killings to those revealed by intelligence information to be al Qaeda's members and those acting in concert with them. Combined with the CIA's secret lethal authorities, we must conclude that Obama's targeted killing program is legal until it is shown that the CIA's lethal authorities -- and those of the military -- do not provide for it.

But that it is legal does not mean Obama's "kill list" program is the right tactic or that it is properly applied.

Obama remains committed to closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He failed to overcome congressional objections to moving the Gitmo inmates to the U.S. and has, since his inauguration, released many of them. None has been sent there since he came into office.

Defined by the Clausewitz Cliché, war is the continuation of politics by other means. Obama's politics -- which do not permit us to pursue victory over the nations that sponsor terrorism and their ideology -- is the foundation for the targeted killing program and the means by which it is run.

As the Times article points out, the executive orders Obama signed quickly after his inauguration ended the so-called "enhanced interrogation" techniques used by the CIA, closed the secret prisons abroad where terrorists were held for interrogation (except those in which people could be held only briefly), and limited -- but didn't end -- the practice of "rendition" in which captured terrorists were turned over to other nations for interrogation. Those orders encompassed the principles by which Obama continues to run the war.

Obama and Attorney General Holder were justly -- and harshly -- criticized for putting known terrorists, such as the failed underwear bomber Abdulmutallab, into civilian custody rather than shipping them to Gitmo for the long interrogation by intelligence operatives that might have revealed who and where their superiors and cohorts are. Now, Obama is apparently using the targeted killings to avoid the political objection he has to sending more terrorists to Gitmo.

According to the Times story, some terrorists have been targeted but the president has canceled strikes at the eleventh hour in order to avoid other casualties. In other cases, Obama has ordered the strikes even when those casualties were evidently to be caused. Obama, taking the lawyerly approach the Times praised at three points, adopted a means of counting the collateral deaths that "did little to box him in." In other words, he's fudging the facts to suit his own purposes.

Obama's tactic is no more than a game of whack-a-mole. He is killing terrorists, some of importance and some of none at all. He has probably interdicted some terrorist operations and, for a time, possibly weakened the terrorist groups which organize and manage their attacks. But nothing in this tactic weakens the terrorists' sponsoring nations or attacks the Islamist ideology that propels them all.

Obama, like Bush before him, has only undertaken to define who our enemy isn't, not who it is. As I have written often, our enemy is not only the terrorists but the nations that sponsor terrorism. Unless and until we undertake an ideological war against all Islamists as well as a kinetic war against the nations that sponsor terrorism, there's also no prospect of an outcome that benefits us.

That reasoning doesn't preclude the targeted killing of terrorists to interdict terrorist attacks against us or against our forces abroad. Such targeted killings are an essential part of fighting the war. But the president is using those strikes as an alternative to a decisive strategy that could lead to victory over the enemy.

Obama is a mass of varying principles and liberal emotions. He, and his worshippers in the media such as the Times, want to characterize his personal control of anti-terrorist drone strikes as moral, courageous, and risky. But this is the same president who refuses to recognize and deal with the Islamist threat that emanates from Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. It is the same president who two years ago banned the use of the terms "Islam," "jihad," and even "Islamic extremism" from our national security strategy documents. And it is the same president who is doing everything in his power to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program.

If Obama is reelected, we can expect more and less of the same. He may not continue his once-secret program of drone strikes because his beliefs do not permit it and his leftist constituency -- even including the Times -- says that the program is untenable in the long term. Part of the rationale for the program is to interdict terrorist attacks on our forces in Afghanistan. Once those forces are withdrawn, that rationale will disappear but the terrorists, the nations that support them, and their ideology won't.

Obama will do less, not more, in a second term to defeat the continuing threat of the Islamist ideology and the terrorism it requires.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.