Even as President Barack Obama increases the pace of American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the administration is preparing for an expansion of the war on terrorism against Islamist militants in other regions.
That expansion will very likely be accompanied by a larger role for the Central Intelligence Agency and by the more frequent use of the tactic of targeted illings through the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, called drones.
The shift is prompted by a January assault on a natural-gas plant by an al-Qaida affiliate in the North African country of Algeria. The assault resulted in the deaths of 37 people, including three Americans. Reportedly, the Algerian leader of the terrorist militia who planned the raid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has been added to the "capture-or-kill list."
As a result, Belmokhtar could be the target of an attack by a U.S. drone. Drones have been a tool in the war on terrorism since 2001, but the Obama administration has leaned more heavily on their use than its predecessor. The Washington Post estimates that, since 2001, more than 2,000 militants and civilians have been killed in drone attacks. Drone attacks attracted little controversy until 2011 when the administration deployed one in Yemen to kill the radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. What appeared to differentiate the Awlaki death from other targeted killings was that Awlaki was an American citizen.
To justify that attack the Justice Department in 2010 prepared a legal memo explaining the rationale for the targeted-killing program.
Basically, the memo argued that in circumstances where capture or apprehension of the terrorist suspect was not feasible, the U.S could legally exercise lethal force against a citizen, if the subject was a leader of al-Qaida or one of its affiliates who himself posed an imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S.
That memo remained confidential until just this month when NBC acquired an abridged version. The exposure of the memo intensified the now long-running argument, which began during the Bush administration, over the scope of the president's authority to prosecute the war on terrorism. To probably no one's surprise, the American Civil Liberties Union characterized the logic of the memo as "profoundly disturbing" and as "a stunning overreach of executive authority."
The ACLU's objections to target-kill lists are reminiscent of the complaints it and other critics of the war on terrorism (including then-Sen. Obama) lodged against the Bush administration. In that instance, the objections centered on the Bush administration's use of indefinite detention of terrorist suspects and the use of harsh interrogation techniques.
In both instances, critics have seized upon the perceived lack of due process afforded the terrorist subjects.
The controversy over the targeted killings is likely to grow. In the wake of evidence of the growing threat of al-Qaida activity in North Africa, as demonstrated by the recent attack in Algeria, the Obama administration has recently negotiated an agreement with the African country of Niger. That agreement will give the U.S. rights to establish a base in Niger from which drone attacks may be launched. As a result, the scope of the targeted killings will almost certainly expand beyond the customary sites, which included Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Still, I don't expect the controversy to derail the program. The shift in tactics is probably legal and constitutional, assuming an expansive reading of the commander-in-chief authority in wartime. Democrats in Congress, once outraged by the Bush administration's alleged abuses of authority, now seem indifferent for the most part. Media criticism is muted. Moreover, the public does not appear to disapprove.
The more pressing issue raised by the drone strikes, then, concerns their effectiveness. As the president de-emphasizes the role of our conventional military in the fight against terrorism, he has enlarged the paramilitary role of the CIA to fill the gap. That is a big gap for the CIA to fill. Let's hope the agency is up to the task. Our security depends on it.