by Philip Giraldi
December 06, 2012
Antiwar.com

The American public has become so desensitized to what its own government is doing abroad that there is only a ripple of interest when the media reports some new outrage. The assassination of expatriate American citizens by drones preceded detailed media accounts of how kill lists are drawn up by the president himself in the White House. And now there have been press reports of how the Obama administration, in the lead up to the presidential election, sought to establish “explicit rules” for death by drone, thereby institutionalizing the practice as a component of the United States’ “defensive” strategy.

The Obama administration has killed an estimated 2,500 people using CIA and military drones, most of whom were Pakistanis. There is considerable debate over how many of the victims were actually terrorists or insurgents, as the CIA regards any male adult killed as a terrorist unless it can be proved otherwise after the fact, but sources inside Pakistan report a significant civilian kill rate. The rush by the Obamas to codify what has until now been a largely ad hoc practice was reportedly triggered by concern that there might be a new administration in Washington that would benefit from “clear standards and procedures” for killing terrorists with Hellfire missiles fired by Predator drones. The New York Times reports that the White House was seeking to “resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.” Why? Because advisers are “still debating whether remote control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool.” Top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who reportedly favors limiting the attacks, argues that the Obama administration is seeking to set “the ethical standard for” targeting by drones.

An ethical standard might prove to be elusive in an environment where body counts, just as in Vietnam, have become the measure of success. The first targeted killing of alleged terrorists by drone took place in 2002. Prior to 9/11, the U.S. considered targeted killings to be illegal. At the heart of the current controversy is the government’s contention both under George W. Bush and Barack Obama that the United States is legally at war with al-Qaeda and that the terrorist group, being stateless, can be attacked anywhere in the world where the local authorities are either unwilling or incapable of taking action themselves. This has sometimes been referred to as a constabulary function, not unlike U.S. marshals going to a foreign country and working with the local authorities to arrest an American fugitive. The difference with the marshals is, of course, that a legal process leading to arrest has both process and transparency, while a kill list drawn up in secret and without any rights for the suspect does not.

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