Assassinations And Disincentives

I mentioned this in the comments of the previous post, but friend-of-the-blog Mark Hosenball has a great reported post digging into the circumstances under which the intelligence agencies and the military can kill Americans. Hosenball confirms that a national-security committee of cabinet officials and intelligence officers convenes to approve “strikes specifically targeting Americans.” That would be flashing-red-light Number One.

But flashing-red-light Number Two strikes me as actually more problematic. No committee convenes for strikes against foreign terrorists. The trigger-pullers already have that authority. That much we’ve known for years. But Hosenball brings out a corollary: no such specific authorization for a strike is required “if an American happens to be in the vicinity of a foreign target at the time of the strike.”

Think about the disincentive that creates. If you’re in charge of missile strikes in Yemen, for instance, and you have some credible intelligence that an al-Qaeda meeting is taking place at Location X at Hour Y, do you really want to spend time tasking your intelligence assets to determine that there aren’t any Americans, like Anwar al-Awlaki, at Location X/Time Y? If Awlaki happens to be there… well, so be it. But if you go to the trouble of determining he will be, you might have to go through the committee process, and some lawyer might object to a missile strike on a place/time where there’s reason to believe an American is in attendance — even if he’s not the specific target. What a headache. So much easier to not perform the due diligence. Better to ask forgiveness than permission, etc.

And it’s through that lack of due-diligence that the universe of strikes that specifically target Americans shrinks but the universe of strikes that still kill Americans can grow.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman