for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends to Keep Adding names
to Kill Lists
By Greg Miller
October 23, 2012 "Washington
-Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been
secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a
next-generation targeting list called the “disposition matrix.”
The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed
against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track
them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine
operations. U.S. officials said the database is designed to go
beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the “disposition”
of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.
Although the matrix is a work in progress, the effort to create
it reflects a reality setting in among the nation’s
counterterrorism ranks: The United States’ conventional wars are
winding down, but the government expects to continue adding
names to kill or capture lists for years.
Among senior Obama administration officials, there is a broad
consensus that such operations are likely to be extended at
least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to
metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.
“We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,” a senior
administration official said. “It’s a necessary part of what we
do. . . . We’re not going to wind up in 10 years in a world of
everybody holding hands and saying, ‘We love America.’ ”
That timeline suggests that the United States has reached only
the midpoint of what was once known as the global war on
terrorism. Targeting lists that were regarded as finite
emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now
fixtures of the national security apparatus. The rosters expand
and contract with the pace of drone strikes but never go to
Meanwhile, a significant milestone looms: The number of
militants and civilians killed in the drone campaign over the
past 10 years will soon exceed 3,000 by certain estimates,
surpassing the number of people al-Qaeda killed in the Sept. 11
The Obama administration has touted its successes against the
terrorist network, including the death of Osama bin Laden, as
signature achievements that argue for President Obama’s
reelection. The administration has taken tentative steps toward
greater transparency, formally acknowledging for the first time
the United States’ use of armed drones.
Less visible is the extent to which 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. Spokesmen for the White
House, the National Counterterrorism Center, the CIA and other
agencies declined to comment on the matrix or other
Privately, officials acknowledge 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
White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan is 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.
CIA Director David H. Petraeus is pushing for an expansion of
the agency’s fleet of armed drones, U.S. officials said. The
proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the
agency’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes
clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and
return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.
The U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the
raid that killed bin Laden, has moved commando teams into
suspected terrorist hotbeds in Africa. A rugged U.S. outpost in
Djibouti has been transformed into a launching pad for
counterterrorism operations across the Horn of Africa and the
JSOC also has established a secret targeting center across the
Potomac River from Washington, current and former U.S. officials
said. The elite command’s targeting cells have traditionally
been located near the front lines of its missions, including in
Iraq and Afghanistan. But JSOC created a “national capital
region” task force that is a 15-minute commute from the White
House so it could be more directly involved in deliberations
about al-Qaeda lists.
The developments were described by current and former officials
from the White House and the Pentagon, as well as intelligence
and counterterrorism agencies. Most spoke on the condition of
anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
These counterterrorism components have been affixed to a legal
foundation for targeted killing that the Obama administration
has discussed more openly over the past year. In a series of
speeches, administration officials have cited legal bases,
including the congressional authorization to use military force
granted after the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the nation’s
right to defend itself.
Critics contend that those justifications have become more
tenuous as the drone campaign has expanded far beyond the core
group of al-Qaeda operatives behind the strikes on New York and
Washington. Critics note that the administration still doesn’t
confirm the CIA’s involvement or the identities of those who are
killed. Certain strikes are now under legal challenge, including
the killings last year in Yemen of U.S.-born al-Qaeda operative
Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son.
Counterterrorism experts said the reliance on targeted killing
is self-perpetuating, yielding undeniable short-term results
that may obscure long-term costs.
“The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,” said
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism
adviser. “You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute
you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”
An evolving database
The United States now operates multiple drone programs,
including acknowledged U.S. military patrols over conflict zones
in Afghanistan and Libya, and classified CIA surveillance
flights over Iran.
Strikes against al-Qaeda, however, are carried out under secret
lethal programs involving the CIA and JSOC. The matrix was
developed by the NCTC, under former director Michael Leiter, to
augment those organizations’ separate but overlapping kill
lists, officials said.
The result is a single, continually evolving database in which
biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated
organizations are all catalogued. So are strategies for taking
targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations
and drone patrols.
Obama’s decision to shutter the CIA’s secret prisons ended a
program that had become a source of international scorn, but it
also complicated the pursuit of terrorists. Unless a suspect
surfaced in the sights of a drone in Pakistan or Yemen, the
United States had to scramble to figure out what to do.
“We had a disposition problem,” said a former U.S.
counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix.
The database is meant to map out contingencies, creating an
operational menu that spells out each agency’s role in case a
suspect surfaces in an unexpected spot. “If he’s in Saudi
Arabia, pick up with the Saudis,” the former official said. “If
traveling overseas to al-Shabaab [in Somalia] we can pick him up
by ship. If in Yemen, kill or have the Yemenis pick him up.”
Officials declined to disclose the identities of suspects on the
matrix. They pointed, however, to the capture last year of
alleged al-Qaeda operative Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame off the
coast of Yemen. Warsame was held for two months aboard a U.S.
ship before being transferred to the custody of the Justice
Department and charged in federal court in New York.
“Warsame was a classic case of ‘What are we going to do with
him?’ ” the former counterterrorism official said. In such
cases, the matrix lays out plans, including which U.S. naval
vessels are in the vicinity and which charges the Justice
Department should prepare.
“Clearly, there were people in Yemen that we had on the matrix,”
as well as others in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the former
counterterrorism official said. The matrix was a way to be ready
if they moved. “How do we deal with these guys in transit? You
weren’t going to fire a drone if they were moving through Turkey
Officials described the matrix as a database in development,
although its status is unclear. Some said it has not been
implemented because it is too cumbersome. Others, including
officials from the White House, Congress and intelligence
agencies, described it as a blueprint that could help the United
States adapt to al-Qaeda’s morphing structure and its efforts to
exploit turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East.
A year after Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta declared the core
of al-Qaeda near strategic defeat, officials see an array of
emerging threats beyond Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — the three
countries where almost all U.S. drone strikes have occurred.
The Arab spring has upended U.S. counterterrorism partnerships
in countries including Egypt where U.S. officials fear al-Qaeda
could establish new roots. The network’s affiliate in North
Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, has seized territory in
northern Mali and acquired weapons that were smuggled out of
“Egypt worries me to no end,” a high-ranking administration
official said. “Look at Libya, Algeria and Mali and then across
the Sahel. You’re talking about such wide expanses of territory,
with open borders and military, security and intelligence
capabilities that are basically nonexistent.”
Streamlining targeted killing
The creation of the matrix and the institutionalization of
kill/capture lists reflect a shift that is as psychological as
it is strategic.
Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States recoiled
at the idea of targeted killing. The Sept. 11 commission
recounted how the Clinton administration had passed on a series
of opportunities to target bin Laden in the years before the
attacks — before armed drones existed. President Bill Clinton
approved a set of cruise-missile strikes in 1998 after al-Qaeda
bombed embassies in East Africa, but after extensive
deliberation, and the group’s leader escaped harm.
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.
This year, the White House scrapped a system in which the
Pentagon and the National Security Council had overlapping roles
in scrutinizing the names being added to U.S. target lists.
Now 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.
Video-conference calls that were previously convened by Adm.
Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have
been discontinued. Officials said Brennan thought the process
shouldn’t be run by those who pull the trigger on strikes.
“What changed is rather than the chairman doing that, John
chairs the meeting,” said Leiter, the former head of the NCTC.
The administration has also elevated the role of the NCTC, which
was conceived as a clearinghouse for threat data and has no
operational capability. Under Brennan, who served as its
founding director, the center has emerged as a targeting hub.
Other entities have far more resources focused on al-Qaeda. The
CIA, JSOC and U.S. Central Command have hundreds of analysts
devoted to the terrorist network’s franchise in Yemen, while the
NCTC has fewer than two dozen. But the center controls a key
“It is the keeper of the criteria,” a former U.S.
counterterrorism official said, meaning that it is in charge of
culling names from al-Qaeda databases for targeting lists based
on criteria dictated by the White House.
The criteria are classified but center on obvious questions: Who
are the operational leaders? Who are the key facilitators? A
typical White House request will direct the NCTC to generate a
list of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen involved in carrying out or
plotting attacks against U.S. personnel in Sanaa.
The lists are reviewed at regular three-month intervals during
meetings at the NCTC headquarters that involve analysts from
other organizations, including the CIA, the State Department and
JSOC. Officials stress that these sessions don’t equate to
approval for additions to kill lists, an authority that rests
exclusively with the White House.
With no objections — and officials said those have been rare —
names are submitted to a panel of National Security Council
officials that is chaired by Brennan and includes the deputy
directors of the CIA and the FBI, as well as top officials from
the State Department, the Pentagon and the NCTC.
Obama approves the criteria for lists and signs off on drone
strikes outside Pakistan, where decisions on when to fire are
made by the director of the CIA. But aside from Obama’s presence
at “Terror Tuesday” meetings — which generally are devoted to
discussing terrorism threats and trends rather than approving
targets — the president’s involvement is more indirect.
“The president would never come to a deputies meeting,” a senior
administration official said, although participants recalled
cases in which Brennan stepped out of the situation room to get
Obama’s direction on questions the group couldn’t resolve.
The review process is compressed but not skipped when the CIA or
JSOC has compelling intelligence and a narrow window in which to
strike, officials said. The approach also applies to the
development of criteria for “signature strikes,” which allow the
CIA and JSOC to hit targets based on patterns of activity —
packing a vehicle with explosives, for example — even when the
identities of those who would be killed is unclear.
A model approach
For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted
killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have
devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and
morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.
During Monday’s presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt
Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign.
“We can’t kill our way out of this,” he said, but added later
that Obama was “right to up the usage” of drone strikes and that
he would do the same.
As Obama nears the end of his term, officials said the kill list
in Pakistan has slipped to fewer than 10 al-Qaeda targets, down
from as many as two dozen. The agency now aims many of its
Predator strikes at the Haqqani network, which has been blamed
for attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, the number of militants on the list has ranged from 10
to 15, officials said, and is not likely to slip into the single
digits anytime soon, even though there have been 36 U.S.
airstrikes this year.
The number of targets on the lists isn’t fixed, officials said,
but fluctuates based on adjustments to criteria. Officials
defended the arrangement even while acknowledging an erosion in
the caliber of operatives placed in the drones’ cross hairs.
“Is the person currently Number 4 as good as the Number 4 seven
years ago? Probably not,” said a former senior U.S.
counterterrorism official involved in the process until earlier
this year. “But it doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous.”
In focusing on bureaucratic refinements, the administration has
largely avoided confronting more fundamental questions about the
lists. Internal doubts about the effectiveness of the drone
campaign are almost nonexistent. So are apparent alternatives.
“When you rely on a particular tactic, it starts to become the
core of your strategy — you see the puff of smoke, and he’s
gone,” said Paul Pillar, a former deputy director of the CIA’s
counterterrorism center. “When we institutionalize certain
things, including targeted killing, it does cross a threshold
that makes it harder to cross back.”
For a decade, the dimensions of the drone campaign have been
driven by short-term objectives: the degradation of al-Qaeda and
the prevention of a follow-on, large-scale attack on American
Side effects are more difficult to measure — including the
extent to which strikes breed more enemies of the United States
— but could be more consequential if the campaign continues for
10 more years.
“We are looking at something that is potentially indefinite,”
Pillar said. “We have to pay particular attention, maybe more
than we collectively have so far, to the longer-term pros and
cons to the methods we use.”
Obama administration officials at times have sought to trigger
debate over how long the nation might employ the kill lists. But
officials said the discussions became dead ends.
In one instance, Mullen, the former Joint Chiefs chairman,
returned from Pakistan and recounted a heated confrontation with
his counterpart, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
Mullen told White House and counterterrorism officials that the
Pakistani military chief had demanded an answer to a seemingly
reasonable question: After hundreds of drone strikes, how could
the United States possibly still be working its way through a
“top 20” list?
The issue resurfaced after the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden.
Seeking to repair a rift with Pakistan, Panetta, the CIA
director, told Kayani and others that the United States had only
a handful of targets left and would be able to wind down the
A senior aide to Panetta disputed this account, and said Panetta
mentioned the shrinking target list during his trip to Islamabad
but didn’t raise the prospect that drone strikes would end. Two
former U.S. officials said the White House told Panetta to avoid
even hinting at commitments the United States was not prepared
“We didn’t want to get into the business of limitless lists,”
said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spent
years overseeing the lists. “There is this apparatus created to
deal with counterterrorism. It’s still useful. The question is:
When will it stop being useful? I don’t know.”
Karen DeYoung, Craig Whitlock and Julie Tate contributed to this
Washington Post Company
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