An unprecedentedly detailed account of U.S. President Barack Obama's personal involvement in vetting a “kill list” for drones has raised serious questions about whether the White House has been taking advantages of legal loopholes by using creative language to mask the high risk of innocent civilian deaths.
In a rare series of interviews to the New York Times granted by Obama administration officials past and present, it was revealed that the erstwhile liberal law professor who now occupies the Oval Office 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”.
The fresh details about the White House's methodology for selecting kill targets in the Central Intelligence Agency's drone programme, often based in the remote tribal areas of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border or in Yemen, came close on the heels of a “drone defence” speech given by Mr. Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama's Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, said the U.S.' most secretive and controversial counterterrorism tools was “legal”, “ethical” and “wise”.
According to the sometimes almost romanticised version of Mr. Obama's involvement in the terror-suspects vetting process the NYT argued that the President “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”.
Yet critics have noted that hidden deep within the language used by Mr. Brennan to defend the use of remotely piloted aircraft for targeted killings may be an attempt to whitewash the inevitable innocent civilian casualties that result from “signature” strikes, sometimes raising the spectre of regional anti-American sentiment as it has done in parts of Pakistan. Signature strikes refer to attacks against training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants, according to some authorities, and State Department officials are said to have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the CIA for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax.
William Saletan, an expert at Slate magazine, noted that the phrase used by Mr. Brennan in this regard, that a high degree of confidence was required for an attack “against a specific individual”, hid a loophole. “Many drone strikes don't target a specific individual. To these strikes, none of the vetting rules apply,” Mr. Saletan noted.
Similarly he suggested that vagueness surrounding the definition of the term “civilian” was aiding the Obama administration's willingness to incur collateral damage in strikes. “The official tally of civilian deaths is low because Obama has reversed the burden of proof. Any man within the designated age range is presumed guilty and eligible for termination. Imagine what Obama would say if this defence were offered for the killing of Trayvon Martin,” Mr. Saletan said.