warfare and Obama's 'kill list'
in the spring of 2012, the New York Times revealed the
existence of a secret "kill list" of suspected terrorists
compiled by President Obama and his counterterrorism advisors.
The Times reported that the president personally reviews
and approves individuals targeted for assassination. This revelation
opened a broad discussion about the legality and morality of having
a secretive program of extrajudicial assassination managed by
the White House. Furthermore, it has shined a light on the increasing
use by the U.S. military of unmanned drone strikes as a preferred
method for continuing the "war on terror" in the Middle
East and Asia.
lesson includes two student readings. The first reading explores
revelations of President Obama's program of extrajudicial assassination
- particularly the controversial "kill list" - and discusses
the morality and legality of the White House's actions. The second
reading provides further background on drones and drone warfare,
and discusses arguments both opposing and in favor of it.
for student discussion follow each reading.
Targeted Assassination and the President's "Kill
in the spring of 2012, the New York Times published a story
by reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane that revealed new details
about the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy. The
article reported the existence of a secret "kill list"
of suspected terrorists compiled by President Obama and his advisors.
It reported that the president personally reviews and approves
individuals targeted for assassination at weekly "Terror
Tuesday" meetings. As Becker and Shane write:
was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence
agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The
mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook
layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including
a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.
Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting
of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation
Room, took a moment to study the faces. It was Jan. 19, 2010,
the end of a first year in office punctuated by terrorist plots
and culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on
Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful attack could derail
his presidency. Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often
indistinguishable from the civilians around them.
old are these people?" he asked, according to two officials
present. "If they are starting to use children," he
said of Al Qaeda, "we are moving into a whole different
was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself
at the helm of a top secret "nominations" process
to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture
part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the
fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing
people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored
just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.
Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the
Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new
name on an expanding "kill list," poring over terrorist
suspects' biographies on what one official calls the macabre
"baseball cards" of an unconventional war. When a
rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises
- but his family is with him - it is the president who has reserved
to himself the final moral calculation.
details about President Obama's direct involvement in selecting
targets for assassination were new. However, the background for
these revelations date to the beginning of the global "war
on terror" in late 2001, following the terrorist attacks
of September 11. While on the presidential campaign trail in 2008,
then-Senator Barack Obama made a centerpiece of his platform a
promise to fight terrorism more intelligently than his predecessor,
George W. Bush. Now, late into his first term as president, many
of the details of Obama's once vague counterterrorism strategy
are coming to light.
Obama administration has embraced the use of "targeted assassinations"
against suspected terrorists. Perhaps the most notable example
of this strategy in action was the May 2011 Special Forces raid
on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in northern Pakistan.
The administration's argument in favor of targeted assassination
is that it risks fewer American lives than full-scale military
invasion, and it promises a higher degree of efficiency in locating
and killing suspected terrorists - especially in countries with
which the United States is not at war or in places not easily
accessible to ground troops.
the use of targeted assassination is controversial. Officially,
killing foreign citizens in countries with which the United States
is not at war is a violation of diplomatic norms and could be
condemned under international law. The recent revelation of the
"kill list," as well as President Obama's direct involvement
with it, has opened a broad discussion about the legality and
morality of having a secretive program of extrajudicial assassination
managed by the White House.
the one hand, some commentators defend the president's role atop
this program of targeted assassinations, arguing that it would
be unreasonable to expect the president not to reserve the right
to have the final say. As Fred Kaplan wrote for Slate.com
in a June 15 article:
all the fuss about President Obama's "kill list"?
If there is a list of terrorists to be killed with drone strikes
on the soil of a country where we're not officially at war,
shouldn't it be the president who decides to pull the trigger?
For such an extraordinary occasion, ripe with moral issues and
potential diplomatic consequences, it is properly the president's
call, not the CIA director's or the nearest four-star general's
it a good thing that the president is taking responsibility
for these borderline cases, that he's not leaving it up to the
spymasters or the generals, whose purview on such matters is
narrower and whose tolerance for risk might be looser?
On the other hand, critics allege that the assassination program
is illegal and the president's direct involvement in it is immoral.
Moreover, it sets a dangerous policy precedent. As Gabor Rona
and Daphne Eviator of Human Rights First write in a June 1 article
for Foreign Policy:
and Shane confirm what we could only guess from remarks made
by Obama's advisors in the past: that the United States is targeting
to kill individuals overseas who do not pose an imminent threat
to the United States and who are not directly participating
in hostilities against Americans. That's a violation of international
advisor John] Brennan acknowledged that the United States in
its use of drone technology is "establishing precedents
that other nations may follow, and not all of them will be nations
that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting
human life, including innocent civilians."
precedent is a dangerous one. The United States is claiming
both moral and legal authority that it does not have. And in
practice it is applying that authority both broadly and recklessly.
What would happen if, say, China decided to launch drone strikes
against Tibetan dissidents across the border in India? Or Iran
decided to strike members of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) in Nevada?
(MEK members reportedly trained there secretly in 2006.) (https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/06/01-5)
After news of the "kill list" came to light, the White
House defended its actions. As Press Secretary Jay Carney stated,
"President Obama made clear from the start to his advisers
and to the world that we were going to take whatever steps are
necessary to protect the American people from harm, and particularly
from a terrorist attack." While the debate about the use
of targeted assassinations will continue, there is no indication
that the program will be ending any time soon.
Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they
Why are some people critical of President Obama's "kill
What arguments do those who defend the "kill list"
What do you think? Should the use of "targeted assassination"
be banned as a violation of international law, or do you think
it is a legitimate part of the fight against terrorism?
If the United States' government is allowed to assassinate people
in other countries that it believes are terrorists, should foreign
governments be able to assassinate people also?
Student Reading 2:
Is Drone Warfare the Wave of the Future?
the beginning of the global "war on terror" in late
2001, the US military has come to rely increasingly on the use
of unmanned drone aircrafts to carry out airstrikes. Advancements
in technology have made it possible to carry out complex, high-precision
military operations on targets thousands of miles away, with virtually
no risk to the lives of US soldiers. Under the Obama Administration,
unmanned drone strikes have become a linchpin in the program of
targeted assassinations of suspected terrorist operatives. As
they have come into wider use, drones have become the subject
exactly what is an "unmanned drone"? Drone aircraft
are essentially highly advanced remote-controlled airplanes. While
drones have been used by the US military for several decades,
it is only within the last 15 years that they have been equipped
with missiles and used for airstrikes. Although this use for drones
was pioneered under the Bush administration, it has been greatly
expanded under the Obama administration, and has especially been
used to carry out attacks on targets in Pakistan, a country with
which the United States is not at war, but which is believed to
be a hiding place for suspected terrorists. Reporter Tara McKelvey
wrote in a feature for the May/June 2011 issue of the Columbia
Barack Obama has authorized 193 drone strikes in Pakistan since
he took office in 2009, more than four times the number of attacks
that President George W. Bush authorized during his two terms,
according to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based
the September 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush signed
a directive that authorized arming the drones, called Predators,
with Hellfire missiles to try to take out terrorism suspects,
according to military officials. He later widened the directive
to allow strikes against anyone working inside terrorist camps,
not just individual suspects.
according to military officials, the United States is running
two drone programs: the military is in charge of drones in Afghanistan,
where the country is officially at war; the CIA, meanwhile,
runs the drone program in Pakistan, an ally in the war in Afghanistan.
The drone operations in Afghanistan are relatively straightforward
and US officials routinely release information about the attacks.
In Pakistan, where the CIA is running the show, the situation
is different. (http://www.cjr.org/feature/covering_obamas_secret_war.php?page=all)
Defenders of drones argue that drones allow for a degree of precision
that cannot be achieved through manned missions, all the while
preserving the lives of US soldiers. As Jeb C. Henning of the
Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress writes in
an op-ed for the New
drones are both inevitable, since they allow the fusing of a
reconnaissance platform with a weapons system, and, in many
respects, highly desirable. They can loiter, observe and strike,
with a far more precise application of force. They eliminate
risk to pilots and sharply reduce the financial costs of projecting
power. Moreover, polls show that a vast majority of Americans
support the use of drones.
opponents contend that drone strikes are carried out indiscriminately,
without regard for the lives of civilians in the areas that are
targeted. Journalist Jeremy
Scahill argued during a June 2, 2012, appearance on the MSNBC
program "Up with Chris Hayes" that the U.S. government's
lack of concern for the lives of civilians in the areas targeted
for drone strikes and its effort to cover up civilian casualties
when they occur constitute serious crimes:
you go to the village of Al-Majalah in Yemen, where I was, and
you see the unexploded clusterbombs and you have the list and
photographic evidence, as I do - the women and children that
represented the vast majority of the deaths in this first strike
that Obama authorized on Yemen. Those people were murdered by
President Obama, on his orders, because there was believed to
be someone from Al Qaeda in that area. There's only one person
that's been identified that had any connection to Al Qaeda there.
And 21 women and 14 children were killed in that strike and
the U.S. tried to cover it up, and say it was a Yemeni strike.
And we know from the Wikileaks cables that David Petraeus conspired
with the president of Yemen to lie to the world about who did
that bombing. It's murder--it's mass murder--when you say, 'We
are going to bomb this area' because we believe a terrorist
is there, and you know that women and children are in the area.
The United States has an obligation to not bomb that area if
they believe that women and children are there. I'm sorry, that's
Furthermore, critics argue, the large amount of collateral damage
and civilian deaths that result from drone strikes only serve
to increase animosity towards the United States in the Muslim
world, making future terrorist attacks more likely. As journalist
Greenwald of Salon.com noted on June 13, 2012, U.S. policy
in the Muslim world - especially the increasing use of drones
- is deeply unpopular, and it is a leading cause of anti-Americanism
in the region:
about international opinion - like so many other things - is
so very 2004, especially in Democratic Party circles (notwithstanding
the fact that, as that Rumsfeld-era report documented, anti-American
animus arising from American aggression is the greatest security
threat and the prime source of terrorism). Who cares if virtually
the entire world views Obama's drone attacks as unjustified
and wrong? Who cares if the Muslim world continues to seethe
with anti-American animus as a result of this aggression? Empires
do what they want. Despite all this, these polling data will
undoubtedly prompt that age-old American question: Why?
warfare appears to be the wave of the future, but its growing
popularity requires reckoning with unintended consequences.
Do students have any questions about the reading? How might
they be answered?
Why do some people defend drones? Why do others criticize them?
What are the consequences of the U.S. doing actions in the
world that are unpopular? How does this affect the U.S.'s ability
to fight terrorism?
What do you think? Do you think drones should be used as heavily
as they are?
lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with
research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.
welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.