On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take U.S. foreign policy in a different direction. "A decade of war is now ending," Obama declared. "We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war."
Much of the media focus that day was on the new hairstyle of First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared on the dais sporting freshly trimmed bangs, and on the celebrities in attendance, including hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, who performed the national anthem. But the day Obama was sworn in, a U.S. drone strike hit Yemen. It was the third such attack in that country in as many days. Despite the rhetoric from the president on the Capitol steps, there was abundant evidence that he would continue to preside over a country that is in a state of perpetual war.
In the year leading up to the inauguration, more people had been killed in U.S. drone strikes across the globe than were imprisoned at Guantánamo. As Obama was sworn in for his second term, his counterterrorism team was finishing up the task of systematizing the kill list, including developing rules for when U.S. citizens could be targeted. Admiral William McRaven had been promoted to the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and his Special Ops forces were operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.
After General David Petraeus's career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the Agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill program. After four years as Obama's senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the "assassination czar" for his role in U.S. drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.
When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan's role in the Bush-era detainee program. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a "playbook" for crossing names off the kill list. "Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it," noted the Washington Post.
Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by "seeking to codify the administration's approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced," the paper added. "The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan's desk, and subsequently presented to the president."
Obama's counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the "Disposition Matrix," a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing program would persist for "at least another decade." During his first term in office, the Washington Post concluded, "Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war."
Redefining "Imminent Threat"
In early 2013, a Department of Justice "white paper" surfaced that laid out the "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen." The government lawyers who wrote the 16-page document asserted that the government need not possess specific intelligence indicating that an American citizen is actively engaged in a particular or active terror plot in order to be cleared for targeted killing. Instead, the paper argued that a determination from a "well-informed high level administration official" that a target represents an "imminent threat" to the United States is a sufficient basis to order the killing of an American citizen. But the Justice Department's lawyers sought to alter the definition of "imminent," advocating what they called a "broader concept of imminence."
They wrote, "The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future." The government lawyers argued that waiting for a targeted killing of a suspect "until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself." They asserted that such an operation constitutes "a lawful killing in self-defense" and is "not an assassination."
Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU called the white paper a "chilling document," saying that "it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen." Jaffer added, "This power is going to be available to the next administration and the one after that, and it's going to be available in every future conflict, not just the conflict against al-Qaeda. And according to the [Obama] administration, the power is available all over the world, not just on geographically cabined battlefields. So it really is a sweeping proposition."