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Exposed 'Kill Matrix' Gives Permanence to US 'War on Terror'

The Washington Post reports on the codifying of Obama's 'kill list'

- Common Dreams staff

An in-depth Washington Post story reveals that the drone warfare and bottomless "kill list" that have become signature features of the Obama administration's foreign policy have evolved. At the center of these policies is a "next-generation" 'kill-list' rebranded as a 'disposition matrix' meant to serve as a guide for "future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced." 

The Obama administration's 'kill list' becomes a permanent fixture in US foreign policy. (Photo by The White House via Flickr) Greg Miller's exposé for the Post reveals that as "U.S.'s conventional wars are winding down," the Obama administration has secretly been ramping up on long-term counterterrorism policies that will essentially institutionalize the tracking, targeting, and killing of individuals—at will—for years and years.

The 'disposition matrix' contains the names and biographical information of terrorism suspects—including "locations, known associates and affiliated organizations"—against an array of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including "extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols".

“Anyone who thought U.S. targeted killing outside of armed conflict was a narrow, emergency-based exception to the requirement of due process before a death sentence is being proven conclusively wrong,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, in response to Miller's report. “The danger of dispensing with due process is obvious because without it, we cannot be assured that the people in the government’s death database truly present a concrete, imminent threat to the country. What we do know is that tragic mistakes have been made, hundreds of civilian bystanders have died, and our government has even killed a 16-year-old U.S. citizen without acknowledging let alone explaining his death. A bureaucratized paramilitary killing program that targets people far from any battlefield is not just unlawful, it will create more enemies than it kills.”

Security officials and intelligence analysts interviewed by Miller call the matrix a "work in progress". Developed by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) under former director Michael Leiter, they scrapped a system in which the Pentagon and the National Security Council had overlapping target lists and roles in scrutinizing the names being added. "Now," Miller writes, "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 [Chief Counterterrorism Advisor, John] Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president".

Civil libertarian and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald reacted with derision to the "extremist powers" being exercised "in the name of the war on terror," calling the so-called "matrix" a  "centralized clearinghouse for determining who will be executed without due process" based solely upon determinations made exclusively by the executive branch.

Greenwald continues:

What has been created here - permanently institutionalized - is a highly secretive executive branch agency that simultaneously engages in two functions: (1) it collects and analyzes massive amounts of surveillance data about all Americans without any judicial review let alone search warrants, and (2) creates and implements a "matrix" that determines the "disposition" of suspects, up to and including execution, without a whiff of due process or oversight. It is simultaneously a surveillance state and a secretive, unaccountable judicial body that analyzes who you are and then decrees what should be done with you, how you should be "disposed" of, beyond the reach of any minimal accountability or transparency.

Beyond the "Orwellian" euphemism employed, another difference between this 'disposition matrix' and the 'kill list' is the seemingly infinite nature of the program. Miller writes that the targeting lists—which were initially conceived as emergency measures after 9/11—"are now fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to zero."

This painful accounting drove Pakistani military chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to ask Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff: "After hundreds of drone strikes, how could the United States possibly still be working its way through a 'top 20” list?"

Greenwald argues that the "disposition matrix" itself was "motivated by Obama's refusal to arrest or detain terrorist suspects, and his resulting commitment simply to killing them at will (his will)."

Recent actions, such as CIA Director David Petraeus requesting more drones for his targeted killing fleet, the encroachment of the U.S.'s spy network into Africa and a new, secret targeting center run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) "a 15-minute commute from the White House so it could be more directly involved in deliberations about al-Qaeda lists," point to the pervasiveness and long-term commitment to this target strategy.

In response to the Post's story, Kate Crockford of the ACLU of Massachusetts, writes that "despite their nominal focus on terrorism," the real purpose of the NCTC is "massive, secretive data collection and mining of trillions of points of data about most people in the United States." Greenwald adds that, "the NCTC—now vested with the power to determine the proper 'disposition' of terrorist suspects—is the same agency that is at the center of the ubiquitous, unaccountable surveillance state aimed at American citizens".

Miller reports that officials have acknowledged, in private, "that the development of the matrix is part of a series of moves, in Washington and overseas, to embed counterterrorism tools into U.S. policy for the long haul." He adds that Brennan intends to "codify the administration’s approach," streamlining the method for future administrations.

The consequences are cumulative, as Greenwald points out: "The more the US kills and kills and kills, the more people there are who 'want to harm us'. That's the logic that has resulted in a permanent war on terror."

By certain estimates, the number of militants and civilians killed in the drone campaign over the past 10 years will soon exceed 3,000—exceeding the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks. “We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior administration official told the Post. But, he conceded, “it’s a necessary part of what we do."

Perhaps most disturbing is the blind acceptance, among the ranks, of this radical departure from our core principles. Greenwald writes:

The core guarantee of western justice since the Magna Carta was codified in the US by the fifth amendment to the constitution: "No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." You simply cannot have a free society, a worthwhile political system, without that guarantee, that constraint on the ultimate abusive state power, being honored.

It is literally impossible to imagine a more violent repudiation of the basic blueprint of the republic than the development of a secretive, totally unaccountable executive branch agency that simultaneously collects information about all citizens and then applies a "disposition matrix" to determine what punishment should be meted out. This is classic political dystopia brought to reality.

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