‘Kill list:’ how drone attacks turned Obama into a hardliner


U.S. President Barack Obama used to be criticized for being too liberal. But in the past week news reports have revealed that he personally oversees a “kill list” for drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. Now Washington insiders are likening him to ‘Georges W. Bush on steroids.’

The New York Times and Newsweek exposed how Obama, who came to the White House with no military background and negligible national-security experience, oversees the counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials where the targets for drone attacks are decided every Tuesday.

Both reports quote the book “Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency“by Newsweek editor Daniel Klaidman. The book is based on interviews with both named and anonymous sources within the Obama administration.

University of Utah law professor Amos Guiora told the Guardian that one problem with the so-called “kill list” is that U.S. policy has not firmly defined how people get on it.

“If Bush did what Obama is doing, then the journalists would have been all over it,” Guiora said

In fact, the media reports from last week revealed that the Obama administration defines a militant as any military-age male in the strike zone during a drone attack unless there is specific information posthumously proving them innocent. The logic is, people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with an al-Qaeda operative are probably up to no good.

Obama, who came to office with a pledge to break from the Bush-era, seems to be building on his predecessor’s national security platform.

The president has presided over a massive secret surveillance of U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency, he has made more government documents classified that any of his predecessors; he has maintained CIA rendition flights and launched a crackdown on whistleblowers. He has also failed in meeting his promise of shutting down the controversial Guantanamo Bay Prison in Cuba.

The scope of Obama’s national security policy has shocked even keen Bush supporters and members of the Washington DC establishment.

Aaron David Miller, a Middle East policy adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations, delivered a damning verdict in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine, writing that “Barack Obama has become Georges W. Bush on steroids.”

“Obama did not reverse what Bush did, he went beyond it. Obama is just able to wrap it up in a better looking package. He is more liberal, more eloquent. He does not look like a cowboy,” author and journalist James Badford told the Guardian.

One example is a $2 billion heavily fortified building being constructed in the mountain deserts of Utah. Once the Utah Data Center is complete, it will be five times the size of the Capital and house gigantic servers that will store vast amounts of data from ordinary Americans that will be sifted for traces of intelligence. It will cover everything from phone calls to emails to credit card receipts.

Obama also added a clause to the National Defense Authorization Act that had such an ambiguous definition of support of terrorism that activists and journalist decided to go to court claiming it threated them with indefinite detentions for things like interviewing members of the Hamas-rulers of Gaza.

However it has been the drone attacks and the “kill list” that have emerged as the most hardline element to Obama’s national security policy. In January 2009 when he came to power, the program only existed for Pakistan that has seen 44 attacks over five years. The attacks have since been expanded to Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia with over 250 strikes.

Deliberations on targets even turned to legal justification when it included the deliberate killing of a U.S. citizen , al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen last year. His 16 year-old son Abdul-Rahman was accidentally killed in the same attack.

It is impossible to determine with any certainty how many civilians have been killed in drone attacks due to the “covert” nature of the operations, lack of timely access to remote areas and the integral biases of the U.S. government, targeted terrorist organizations, and host governments. Estimates by non-governmental experts vary widely. In 2009, Pakistani terrorism researcher Amir Mid said civilian deaths accounted for over 98 percent of deaths from drone attacks in Pakistan, while Georgetown University Professor Christine Fair, stated “actually drones are not killing innocent civilians.”

In April 2012, White House Senior Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan vaguely stated: “Unfortunately, in war, there are casualties, including among the civilian population,” and “sometimes you have to take life to save lives.”

In response to the Newsweek and New York Times reporting last week, the White House spokesperson said, “I am not going to get into the specifics of the process [and] I don’t have the assessments of civilian casualties...we make great efforts to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.” That same day, the Pentagon spokesperson told reporters, “Specifics I can’t get into ... I can assure you that the number of civilian casualties is very, very low [and] we’re very confident that the number is very low.”

(Written by Sara Ghasemilee)