Drone Warfare & Obama's 'Kill List'

Student readings explore the morality and legality of President Obama's controversial "kill list" and consider arguments for and against drone warfare. Questions for student discussion follow each reading.


By Mark Engler


To The Teacher:

Late in the spring of 2012, the New York Times revealed the existence of a secret "kill list" of suspected terrorists compiled by President Obama and his counterterrorism advisors. The Times reported that the president personally reviews and approves individuals targeted for assassination. This revelation opened a broad discussion about the legality and morality of having a secretive program of extrajudicial assassination managed by the White House. Furthermore, it has shined a light on the increasing use by the U.S. military of unmanned drone strikes as a preferred method for continuing the "war on terror" in the Middle East and Asia.

This lesson includes two student readings. The first reading explores revelations of President Obama's program of extrajudicial assassination - particularly the controversial "kill list" - and discusses the morality and legality of the White House's actions. The second reading provides further background on drones and drone warfare, and discusses arguments both opposing and in favor of it.

Questions for student discussion follow each reading.


Student Reading 1: 

Targeted Assassination and the President's "Kill List"

Late in the spring of 2012, the New York Times published a story by reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane that revealed new details about the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy. The article reported the existence of a secret "kill list" of suspected terrorists compiled by President Obama and his advisors. It reported that the president personally reviews and approves individuals targeted for assassination at weekly "Terror Tuesday" meetings. As Becker and Shane write:

This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.

President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces. It was Jan. 19, 2010, the end of a first year in office punctuated by terrorist plots and culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful attack could derail his presidency. Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often indistinguishable from the civilians around them.

"How old are these people?" he asked, according to two officials present. "If they are starting to use children," he said of Al Qaeda, "we are moving into a whole different phase."

It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret "nominations" process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding "kill list," poring over terrorist suspects' biographies on what one official calls the macabre "baseball cards" of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises - but his family is with him - it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.


These details about President Obama's direct involvement in selecting targets for assassination were new. However, the background for these revelations date to the beginning of the global "war on terror" in late 2001, following the terrorist attacks of September 11. While on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama made a centerpiece of his platform a promise to fight terrorism more intelligently than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Now, late into his first term as president, many of the details of Obama's once vague counterterrorism strategy are coming to light.

The Obama administration has embraced the use of "targeted assassinations" against suspected terrorists. Perhaps the most notable example of this strategy in action was the May 2011 Special Forces raid on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in northern Pakistan. The administration's argument in favor of targeted assassination is that it risks fewer American lives than full-scale military invasion, and it promises a higher degree of efficiency in locating and killing suspected terrorists - especially in countries with which the United States is not at war or in places not easily accessible to ground troops.

Yet the use of targeted assassination is controversial. Officially, killing foreign citizens in countries with which the United States is not at war is a violation of diplomatic norms and could be condemned under international law. The recent revelation of the "kill list," as well as President Obama's direct involvement with it, has opened a broad discussion about the legality and morality of having a secretive program of extrajudicial assassination managed by the White House.

On the one hand, some commentators defend the president's role atop this program of targeted assassinations, arguing that it would be unreasonable to expect the president not to reserve the right to have the final say. As Fred Kaplan wrote for Slate.com in a June 15 article:

What's all the fuss about President Obama's "kill list"? If there is a list of terrorists to be killed with drone strikes on the soil of a country where we're not officially at war, shouldn't it be the president who decides to pull the trigger? For such an extraordinary occasion, ripe with moral issues and potential diplomatic consequences, it is properly the president's call, not the CIA director's or the nearest four-star general's...

[I]sn't it a good thing that the president is taking responsibility for these borderline cases, that he's not leaving it up to the spymasters or the generals, whose purview on such matters is narrower and whose tolerance for risk might be looser?

On the other hand, critics allege that the assassination program is illegal and the president's direct involvement in it is immoral. Moreover, it sets a dangerous policy precedent. As Gabor Rona and Daphne Eviator of Human Rights First write in a June 1 article for Foreign Policy:

Becker and Shane confirm what we could only guess from remarks made by Obama's advisors in the past: that the United States is targeting to kill individuals overseas who do not pose an imminent threat to the United States and who are not directly participating in hostilities against Americans. That's a violation of international law...

[Counterterrorism advisor John] Brennan acknowledged that the United States in its use of drone technology is "establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians."

That precedent is a dangerous one. The United States is claiming both moral and legal authority that it does not have. And in practice it is applying that authority both broadly and recklessly. What would happen if, say, China decided to launch drone strikes against Tibetan dissidents across the border in India? Or Iran decided to strike members of Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) in Nevada? (MEK members reportedly trained there secretly in 2006.) (https://foreignpolicy.com/2012/05/31/kill-the-kill-list/)

After news of the "kill list" came to light, the White House defended its actions. As Press Secretary Jay Carney stated, "President Obama made clear from the start to his advisers and to the world that we were going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the American people from harm, and particularly from a terrorist attack." While the debate about the use of targeted assassinations will continue, there is no indication that the program will be ending any time soon.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why are some people critical of President Obama's "kill list"?

3. What arguments do those who defend the "kill list" make?

4. What do you think? Should the use of "targeted assassination" be banned as a violation of international law, or do you think it is a legitimate part of the fight against terrorism?

5. If the United States' government is allowed to assassinate people in other countries that it believes are terrorists, should foreign governments be able to assassinate people also?


Student Reading 2: 

Is Drone Warfare the Wave of the Future?

Since the beginning of the global "war on terror" in late 2001, the US military has come to rely increasingly on the use of unmanned drone aircrafts to carry out airstrikes. Advancements in technology have made it possible to carry out complex, high-precision military operations on targets thousands of miles away, with virtually no risk to the lives of US soldiers. Under the Obama Administration, unmanned drone strikes have become a linchpin in the program of targeted assassinations of suspected terrorist operatives. As they have come into wider use, drones have become the subject of controversy.

So, exactly what is an "unmanned drone"? Drone aircraft are essentially highly advanced remote-controlled airplanes. While drones have been used by the US military for several decades, it is only within the last 15 years that they have been equipped with missiles and used for airstrikes. Although this use for drones was pioneered under the Bush administration, it has been greatly expanded under the Obama administration, and has especially been used to carry out attacks on targets in Pakistan, a country with which the United States is not at war, but which is believed to be a hiding place for suspected terrorists. Reporter Tara McKelvey wrote in a feature for the May/June 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review:

President Barack Obama has authorized 193 drone strikes in Pakistan since he took office in 2009, more than four times the number of attacks that President George W. Bush authorized during his two terms, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington-based public-policy institute...

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush signed a directive that authorized arming the drones, called Predators, with Hellfire missiles to try to take out terrorism suspects, according to military officials. He later widened the directive to allow strikes against anyone working inside terrorist camps, not just individual suspects.

Today, according to military officials, the United States is running two drone programs: the military is in charge of drones in Afghanistan, where the country is officially at war; the CIA, meanwhile, runs the drone program in Pakistan, an ally in the war in Afghanistan. The drone operations in Afghanistan are relatively straightforward and US officials routinely release information about the attacks. In Pakistan, where the CIA is running the show, the situation is different. (http://www.cjr.org/feature/covering_obamas_secret_war.php?page=all)

Defenders of drones argue that drones allow for a degree of precision that cannot be achieved through manned missions, all the while preserving the lives of US soldiers. As Jeb C. Henning of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress writes in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Armed drones are both inevitable, since they allow the fusing of a reconnaissance platform with a weapons system, and, in many respects, highly desirable. They can loiter, observe and strike, with a far more precise application of force. They eliminate risk to pilots and sharply reduce the financial costs of projecting power. Moreover, polls show that a vast majority of Americans support the use of drones.

However, opponents contend that drone strikes are carried out indiscriminately, without regard for the lives of civilians in the areas that are targeted. JournalistJeremy Scahill argued during a June 2, 2012, appearance on the MSNBC program "Up with Chris Hayes" that the U.S. government's lack of concern for the lives of civilians in the areas targeted for drone strikes and its effort to cover up civilian casualties when they occur constitute serious crimes:

If you go to the village of Al-Majalah in Yemen, where I was, and you see the unexploded clusterbombs and you have the list and photographic evidence, as I do - the women and children that represented the vast majority of the deaths in this first strike that Obama authorized on Yemen. Those people were murdered by President Obama, on his orders, because there was believed to be someone from Al Qaeda in that area. There's only one person that's been identified that had any connection to Al Qaeda there. And 21 women and 14 children were killed in that strike and the U.S. tried to cover it up, and say it was a Yemeni strike. And we know from the Wikileaks cables that David Petraeus conspired with the president of Yemen to lie to the world about who did that bombing. It's murder--it's mass murder--when you say, 'We are going to bomb this area' because we believe a terrorist is there, and you know that women and children are in the area. The United States has an obligation to not bomb that area if they believe that women and children are there. I'm sorry, that's murder.

Furthermore, critics argue, the large amount of collateral damage and civilian deaths that result from drone strikes only serve to increase animosity towards the United States in the Muslim world, making future terrorist attacks more likely. As journalist Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com noted on June 13, 2012, U.S. policy in the Muslim world - especially the increasing use of drones - is deeply unpopular, and it is a leading cause of anti-Americanism in the region:

[C]aring about international opinion - like so many other things - is so very 2004, especially in Democratic Party circles (notwithstanding the fact that, as that Rumsfeld-era report documented, anti-American animus arising from American aggression is the greatest security threat and the prime source of terrorism). Who cares if virtually the entire world views Obama's drone attacks as unjustified and wrong? Who cares if the Muslim world continues to seethe with anti-American animus as a result of this aggression? Empires do what they want. Despite all this, these polling data will undoubtedly prompt that age-old American question: Why?

Drone warfare appears to be the wave of the future, but its growing popularity requires reckoning with unintended consequences.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why do some people defend drones? Why do others criticize them?

3. What are the consequences of the U.S. doing actions in the world that are unpopular? How does this affect the U.S.'s ability to fight terrorism?

4. What do you think? Do you think drones should be used as heavily as they are?


This lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.

We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.