The Common Good

The Permanent War

This week, the Washington Post published a major three-part series, written by three veteran correspondents, titled “The Permanent War.” The series is an in-depth look at U.S. counterterrorism policies, particularly targeted killings.

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In part one, Greg Miller focuses on the “kill lists” for drone strikes and other covert operations, and how they have evolved.

Over the past two years, the administration has worked on a “next-generation targeting list called the ‘disposition matrix,’  which 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.”

Miller concludes that “Privately, officials acknowledge that the development of the matrix is part of a series of moves, in Washington and overseas, to embed counterterrorism tools into U.S. policy for the long haul. … For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.”

Part two, by Karen DeYoung, is an in-depth look at John Brennan, presidential counterterrorism adviser. One of his major priorities is the development of a “playbook” that “will lay out the administration’s evolving procedures for the targeted killings that have come to define its fight against al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It will cover the selection and approval of targets from the “disposition matrix,” the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted, and the legal authorities the administration thinks sanction its actions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond.”

Brennan is described by some associates as the “moral compass” in the White House, with a “bedrock belief in a ‘just war.’” He described his role in an interview as, “What we’re trying to do right now is to have a set of standards, a set of criteria, and have a decision-making process that will govern our counterterrorism actions — we’re talking about direct action, lethal action — so that irrespective of the venue where they’re taking place, we have a high confidence that they’re being done for the right reasons in the right way.” 

Part three, by Craig Whitlock, takes a close look at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is becoming a permanent counterterrorism base from which drones take off and land around the clock. He describes how “a sun-baked Third World outpost established by the French Foreign Legion, began as a temporary staging ground for U.S. Marines looking for a foothold in the region a decade ago. Over the past two years, the U.S. military has clandestinely transformed it into the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone, a model for fighting a new generation of terrorist groups. … Virtually the entire 500-acre camp is dedicated to counterterrorism, making it the only installation of its kind in the Pentagon’s global network of bases.”

More than 3,000 U.S. troops, civilians, and contractors are stationed there, with about 300 personnel planning and coordinating drone flights. Although taking off and landing from Camp Lemonnier, the drones are flown by pilots 8,000 miles away at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. A squadron of F-15 fighter jets believed to be flying missions over Yemen, and an unacknowledged task force of special operations commandos who carry out unknown missions, are also based in the camp. Seen by the Pentagon as the centerpiece of an expanding network of drone and surveillance bases in Africa, about $1.4 billion in construction projects are being planned.

What all three parts of the series illustrate is that while the administration has created what they believe is, as DeYoung put it, “a standardized counterterrorism program bound by domestic and international law,” it appears to many others as “a secretive killing machine of questionable legality and limitless expansion.”

No matter how “legally and morally sound” administration officials may consider their policies, carrying out targeted killings in countries we are not at war with is a violation both of international law and just war doctrines. There’s just no real way around that conclusion.

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Adviser for Sojourners.

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