Targeted Killing: Drones

A Response to the “Drone Papers”: AUMF Targeting is a Deliberate Process with Robust Political Accountability

By Adam Klein
Thursday, October 15, 2015, 5:40 PM

The Intercept’s “Drone Papers” leaker “believes the public has a right to know how the U.S. government decides to assassinate people.” Maybe so—or maybe public safety and the need for secrecy trump the public’s curiosity. Unfortunately, the leaker has unilaterally decided for all of us. One person with a thumb drive again trumps the democratic process.

Tant pis; the “Drone Papers” are out there (the name suggests a massive archive; in fact, there are only four documents, one of which is a shorter version of another). So what do they tell us about how the U.S. Government is targeting terrorist leaders in Somalia and Yemen for drone strikes—or, as The Intercept would have it, “decid[ing] how to assassinate people”? Unsurprisingly, The Intercept is out to convict; its focus is on the “shortcomings and flaws” of the program, as supposedly exemplified by its ingenuous account of the life and death of al Qaeda commander Bilal el-Berjawi.  

But the documents themselves are hardly as damning as the breathless tone of the reporting suggests. In fact, for those concerned about oversight and accountability in the targeting process for AUMF-based strikes, the documents should reassure rather than unsettle. The overall impression is of thorough, individualized review, at the highest levels of government, that meaningfully constrains those developing and carrying out these operations.

The key documents, two DOD slide decks on “ISR support to small footprint CT operations” in Somalia and Yemen (a full deck and an executive summary) include these details:

  • The “average approval time” for a proposed strike under the AUMF process was 79 days.  Even excluding the single longest approval, presumably an unrepresentative outlier, the average was 58 days. The fastest approval was 27 days.
  • These approvals were preceded by lengthy periods of gathering and analyzing intelligence on the targets—an average of six years.
  • Four out of 24 proposed concepts of operations covered by the study were disapproved under the AUMF review process.
  • Each proposed operation must be approved by a lengthy sequence of high-ranking officials, culminating in the President.
  • The process for approving strikes under the AUMF “requires significant intel/ISR to justify (and maintain) approvals.” “Relatively few, high-level terrorists meet criteria for targeting” under this process. (Note that this isn’t a press release touting the program’s robust oversight; it’s an internal DOD assessment, written from the perspective of operators for whom a laborious approval process is an obstacle rather than a virtue.)
  • These “[p]olitical constraints” make these operations “challenging” and “fundamentally different from what we’ve experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

These slides do not suggest operators run amok, “assassinat[ing]” targets with little forethought or oversight. To the contrary, the “Drone Papers” suggest that these operations go forward only after a deliberate, individualized process. They confirm that senior political decisionmakers, including the President, review and approve each individual operation. And they reveal that operators view this review process as a significant constraint—a constraint that distinguishes these operations from the (presumably more liberal) operating environments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There may be other flaws in the program, as the accompanying articles urge—unintended victims, truncated intelligence collection, a preference for killing over capturing. But if the concern is the process for approving these strikes—“how the U.S. Government decides to assassinate people”—then the Drone Papers should reassure rather than alarm.