“It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals,” write two New York Times reporters. “Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.” In Washington, this weekly meeting has been labeled “Terror Tuesday.” Once established, the list of nominees is sent to the White House, where the president orally gives his approval to each name. With the “kill list” validated, the drones do the rest.
The criteria that go into making these lists of people condemned to death without trial remain unknown. The administration refuses to provide any information on this subject. Harold Koh, the State Department’s legal adviser, nevertheless tried to be reassuring: “Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.” In short: Trust us, even blindfolded.
Apart from these “personal strikes,” there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics. Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”
In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.” It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.” Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases.
To locate these anonymous militants, targeters “rely on what officials describe as ‘pattern of life analysis,’ using evidence collected by surveillance cameras on the unmanned aircraft and from other sources about individuals and locations. . . . The information then is used to target suspected militants, even when their full identities are not known.” As one Reaper drone operator explains, “We can develop those patterns of life, determine who the bad guys are, and then get the clearance and go through the whole find, fix, track, target, attack cycle.”
But the whole problem—at once epistemological and political—lies in this claimed ability to be able to correctly convert an assembly of probable indices into a legitimate target.
Both the means and the methodology are patently limited. As a former CIA officer admits, “You can only see so much from 20,000 feet.” A drone can distinguish shapes only more or less imprecisely. For example, in April 2011, American drones were “unable to discriminate the highly distinctive combat outline of two Marines (with full battle equipment) from the irregular enemy.” A telling joke made in the corridors of American power went, “When the CIA sees three guys doing jumping jacks, the agency thinks it’s a terrorist training camp.”
Picture: U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons