Obama: I Make the Drone Decisions

The military made an aggressive push to wrest control over drone targeting decisions away from the president. In the end, it lost.

Timothy Walter/U.S. Navy/AP

At a highly anticipated speech on counterterrorism this afternoon, President Obama announced reforms that would dramatically ratchet down the administration’s drone program. But one thing that will not change, two highly placed administration sources tell The Daily Beast, is Obama’s singular involvement in making individual kill decisions—this despite the fact that the military made an aggressive push to wrest back control over final targeting calls from the commander in chief.

In fact, it is likely that Obama’s role in deciding who will die and who will be spared will actually increase over time. That is because Obama has decided to transfer the CIA’s targeted-killing program to the U.S. military. Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency, the government has run parallel programs, one housed at the CIA and the other run by the Pentagon. While Obama had broadly signed off on the CIA’s targeted-killing program through a presidential finding for covert action, he did not authorize individual killings except in rare instances. But from the outset of his presidency, Obama personally insisted that he make the final decision on the military’s kill or capture orders, so-called direct action operations. Obama wanted to assume the moral responsibility for what were in effect premeditated government executions. But sources familiar with Obama’s thinking say he also wanted to personally exercise supervision over lethal strikes away from conventional battlefields to avoid getting embroiled in new wars. As responsibility for targeted strikes in places like Yemen, Somalia, and, over time, Pakistan shifts to the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, Obama will be the final decider for the entire program.

Obama’s new policies on targeted killings grew out of a yearlong process known within the administration as “institutionalization.” The effort to codify rules of the road for drones was led by John Brennan, who had been Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House and is now CIA director. Sources familiar with the process say no issue was more contentious than the question of what role the president should have in final killing decisions. The uniformed military, including the joint chiefs of staff, pushed to take the president out of the process. Once the president approved a particular battle plan in a country, individual targeting decisions should be left up to the regional commanders, they argued. Officials at the CIA, who had fought successfully to maintain control over its own targeting in the early days of the administration, backed the military. At one point last year they appeared to have prevailed in the interagency wrangling. A draft version of the new institutionalization policy, known informally as “the playbook,” even contained the proposed change, the sources say. But after an intense counteroffensive by officials at the State Department and Justice Department, the status quo was restored. According to one official who participated in the discussions, it came down to a question of what level of accountability was required when the government was making grave killing decisions far from the traditional battlefield: “It didn’t make sense that while we were on the one hand raising the bar for these decisions, we would also remove the president from the decision-making chain.”

The playbook, which remains classified, lays out a number of other reforms to the targeted-killing policy. Some of them were detailed in a letter Attorney General Eric Holder sent to Congress yesterday. Among the most important is the codification of a much higher threshold for targeting suspected terrorists. Holder revealed the new standard will be the same regardless of whether the U.S. is targeting foreign enemy suspects or U.S. citizens. Lethal force can be used only against targets who represent a “continuing, imminent threat,” and where “capture is not feasible,” Holder said in his letter. It is unclear whether that would signal an end to the controversial practice of “signature strikes,” where groups of suspected terrorists have been targeted even though their identities were not known. (The tactic is believed to have led to significant civilian casualties, while at the same time increasing the number of high-level al Qaeda members who were killed.) One senior Obama administration official said the question of signature strikes, sometimes referred to morbidly as “crowd killing,” has yet to be resolved.

Holder’s letter was also the first public acknowledgment that the Obama administration has targeted U.S. citizens with lethal drone strikes. It was widely known that Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric and senior member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a CIA strike in September 2011. But until yesterday the operation remained classified. Holder also acknowledged that Samir Khan, an American propagandist for AQAP, was killed (he was taken out in the same strike as Awlaki), as was Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Kahn and Abdulrahman were “not specifically targeted,” according to Holder. (U.S. officials have described Khan’s killing as “acceptable collateral damage,” while the killing of Awlaki’s son was characterized as a “mistake.) Meanwhile, Holder revealed for the first time the killing of a fourth American citizen, Jude Kenan Mohammed, a Florida native who was indicted on federal terrorism charges but fled the country in 2008 to “engage in violent Jihad,” according to the government.

While the acknowledgment by U.S. officials of the killing of four Americans is a significant milestone in Obama’s bid to make his war on terror more transparent, it almost didn’t happen. Officials tell The Daily Beast the original plan was to name only Anwar al-Awlaki, while referring to the other three anonymously. That changed when some officials at the Department of Justice argued that withholding the names would defeat the purpose of Obama’s much-touted call for more openness.

Targeted drone strikes have been a centerpiece of the president’s approach to fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates since the beginning of his presidency. Obama vastly ramped up the program shortly after taking office. By the time he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 2009, Obama had authorized twice as many targeted killings as George W. Bush had during his entire presidency. Obama saw the program as a way to keep the pressure on a dangerous enemy that was continuing to plot and plan attacks from its safe havens in Pakistan, while lessening the U.S. footprint in the region.

Over time, two things happened which led to the administration’s reform of the program. One has been an increasing drumbeat of criticism, both at home and abroad, of the controversial tactic. The other, paradoxically, has been its success in dramatically degrading the core organization of al Qaeda in Pakistan. That will allow Obama to argue in his speech today that the United States is entering a new phase in the war against al Qaeda, one that offers an opportunity to wind down some of our most aggressive—and controversial—actions. “The president sees this as an inflection point in the war, and that is reflected in these policies,” says a top Obama adviser. But Obama won’t be declaring the end of the war any time soon. And that is why his finger will still be on the trigger.