Disposition Matrix

Obama Drones by Ann Telnaes

The Disposition Matrix is a database that United States officials describe as a ‘next-generation capture/kill list’ developed by the Obama Administration beginning in 2010. It is a blueprint for tracking, capturing, rendering, or killing terrorism suspects. It is intended to become a permanent fixture of American policy. The process determining criteria for killing is not public, but has been heavily shaped by presidential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

Under the Presidency of George W. Bush, Brennan served as top aide to CIA director George Tenet, where he defended the administration’s use of extraordinary rendition and enhanced interrogation, also described as torture. Brennan’s association with the CIA’s interrogation program was controversial, and forced him to withdraw his candidacy for directorship of the CIA or National Intelligence in 2008.

The database’s creation also accompanies an expansion of the drone fleet, turning the CIA into a ‘paramilitary force’ according to the Washington Post. It is associated with increased Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) operations in Africa, and increased JSOC involvement in forming kill lists. The database has unified originally separate but overlapping kill lists maintained by both JSOC and the CIA, and was originally proposed by former NCTC director Michael Leiter.

The Disposition Matrix database catalogues biographies, locations, associates, and affiliations of suspects. It also catalogues strategies for finding, capturing, or killing suspects, or subjecting them to extraordinary rendition. The database continues to direct American operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and will facilitate expanded operations in Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Libya, Iran, and throughout east Africa.

The database eliminates the prior system of dual (but not judicial) scrutiny by both The Pentagon and the National Security Council, instead using a ‘streamlined’ system in which suspects are designated by multiple agencies and ultimately presented to Brennan and the Vice President. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responsible for carrying out orders to kill suspects on the list, no longer contributes to the decision of whether or not to kill them.

Instead, the NCTC plays a greater role in determining targets, which they generate at the request of the White House. The criteria and decisions determining who may be targeted for killing are developed in large part by John Brennan, who ‘wields enormous power in shaping decisions on ‘kill’ lists and the allocation of armed drones.’ Targets are reviewed every three months with input from the CIA and JSOC, before being passed on top officials in the NCTC, CIA, JSOC, the National Security Council, Pentagon, and U.S. State Department. Ultimately, the authority to kill a suspect outside Pakistan must be approved by the President. The review process also allows the killing of individuals whose identities are unknown, but who are thought to be engaged in certain activities, for instance packing a vehicle with explosives.

As reported previously, American citizens may be listed as targets for killing in the database. Suspects are not formally charged of any crime or offered a trial in their own defense. Obama administration lawyers have asserted that American citizens alleged to be members of Al Qaeda and said to pose an ‘imminent threat of violent attack’ against the United States may be killed without judicial process.

According to research by the RAND Corporation, ‘drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks specifically.’ However, in 2012 Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik stated that 336 American drone strikes in Pakistan claimed over 2,300 victims, 80% of whom were innocent civilians. A Pew Research Center poll shows that 74% of Pakistanis believe that America ‘is the enemy,’ an increase from prior years.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned the disposition matrix, writing in a press release that ‘anyone who thought U.S. targeted killing outside of armed conflict was a narrow, emergency-based exception to the requirement of due process before a death sentence is being proven conclusively wrong.’ It has also filed freedom of information requests regarding the database and filed a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has written that ‘the central role played by the NCTC in determining who should be killed [is] rather odious… the NCTC operates a gigantic data-mining operation, in which all sorts of information about innocent Americans is systematically monitored, stored, and analyzed.’ Greenwald concludes that the Disposition Matrix has established ‘simultaneously a surveillance state and a secretive, unaccountable judicial body that analyzes who you are and then decrees what should be done with you, how you should be ‘disposed’ of, beyond the reach of any minimal accountability or transparency.’ Former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer Philip Giraldi has criticized the disposition matrix’s ‘everyday’ killing of targets with what he calls ‘little or no evidence,’ leaving the White house ‘completely unaccountable.’ Giraldi later commented that Brennan ‘feels the [drone] program has run its course as a CIA operation.’

Criticizing strikes organized under the aegis of the database, the ‘World Socialist Web Site’ has written that ‘the great majority of those killed in Pakistan are targeted for resisting the US occupation of neighboring Afghanistan, while in Yemen they are killed for opposing the US-backed regime there.’ Regarding the effect of the database in the United States, the site has written that ‘the Obama administration has arrogated to itself the most extreme power that can be asserted by any dictatorship—that of ordering citizens put to death without presenting charges against them, much less proving them in a court of law.’ They later criticized the relative silence in the media and the political establishment following the revelation.

In a commentary reprinted by ‘Eurasia Review,’ ‘Russia Today’ called strikes directed by the database ‘targeted executions’ and ‘extrajudicial murders,’ and rhetorically asked how the database will further American counter-terrorism policies if it alienates its allies. Describing the criteria for killing established by the database and drone program, ‘Voice of Russia’ has written that ‘in essence, this means that based on intelligence evidence, the administration assumes the right to judge and execute anyone without bothering about such minor things as proper court hearings, or the right of the accused person for proper legal defense.’ It has accused the Obama Administration of violating American principles of due process, stating, ‘the fact that such operations clearly violate the principles propagated by the U.S. itself, like the right of everyone for legal defense, does not seem to bother the administration.’

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