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Good at Killing

by Carl Osgood
March 2017

A PDF version of this article appears in the March 10, 2017 issue of Executive Intelligence Review and is re-published here with permission.

U.S. Air Force
Above: U.S. Reaper drone shooting a missile; below: Ex-President Obama in the situation room.
Pete Souza/White House

March 4, 2017—Barack Obama was trained and indoctrinated in killing by his stepfather Lolo Soetoro, who was a colonel in the Indonesian army during the 1965-66 Indonesian massacres which a top-secret CIA report called “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.” Wikipedia, citing various academic books and newspaper articles, reports:

The killings were done “face to face,” unlike the mechanical methods of killing used by Nazi Germany. The methods of killing included shooting, dismembering alive and beheading with Japanese-style samurai swords. Islamic extremists often paraded severed heads on spikes. Corpses were often thrown into rivers, and at one point officials complained to the Army that the rivers running into the city of Surabaya were clogged with bodies. In areas such as Kediri in East Java, Nahd­latul Ulama youth wing (Ansor) members lined up Communists, cut their throats and disposed of the bodies in rivers. Rows of severed penises were often left behind as a reminder to the rest. The killings left whole sections of villages empty, and the houses of victims or the interned were looted and often handed over to the military.

Obama’s own autobiography, Dreams from My Father, reports some of what his stepfather taught him about murder soon after these events.[1]

Barack Obama is a killer. He was a killer from the moment he first stepped into the Oval Office in January 2009, remained a killer throughout his entire eight years in office, is a killer today, and will remain a killer as long as he lives. Presidents throughout U.S. history have made decisions that resulted in death, particularly decisions to dispatch U.S. armed forces, and Obama did that more than once throughout his time in office. But unlike any previous President, Obama personally chose people for assassination again and again—men and women picked from a list presented to him every Tuesday by his national security apparatus.

Muhammad ud-Deen
Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, October 2008.

Obama personally decided who on those lists would live, and who would die. Obama’s weapon of choice was the armed drone, either the Predator or its larger cousin the Reaper, firing Hellfire missiles at whoever fell into the cross hairs of its operators half a world away. Obama is personally responsible for the death of every single person killed in this manner, regardless of whether he or she were on his secret death list, or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Americans must face the fact that, for eight years, we tolerated a crazed murderer in our highest office.

The fact of Obama’s Tuesday kill sessions was first revealed by the New York Times on May 29, 2012. Obama, the Times reported, had placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture—though in reality, “kill” had become the preferred action. The Times characterized Obama as “the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture,” but who now “insisted on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official called the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war.”

It was through this process that American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki came into Obama’s sights. The decision to kill him—without trial—Obama told colleagues, was an “easy one.” Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who was Director of National Intelligence until May 2010, told the Times that the intense focus on drone strikes drowned out any discussion of an actual, long term strategy against Al-Qaeda. “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’—[it] reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Blair, who began his military service during that war.

Anyone Nearby Is Killed

But it wasn’t only those people whose names Obama picked out of the list that were killed. Sometimes the chosen victims were caught on lonely desert roads in between villages, but not always. Innocent civilians were often caught by the explosions, though the numbers are uncertain because, in part, the Obama Administration adopted ways of obscuring the actual death toll. One way was to deem all military age males who were killed because they happened to be in the vicinity, as “enemy killed in action,” or EKIA for short, unless explicit intelligence arose afterwards exonerating them.

A videotape was made of every drone killing, and it has been reported that Obama watched and rewatched them in the closed-off private room in the White House where he also spent long hours watching sports events—as the strangling of the July 1944 plotters was filmed for the Führer. The victims of Obama’s killings were always referred to as “bug-splat.”

About three and a half years after the New York Times account, more details emerged on the Tuesday kill-sessions when an anonymous insider divulged classified documents to The Intercept that were then published in a series of reports led by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill. The source told Scahill that he believed that the public had a right to understand how the kill-lists function, and how people were ultimately assassinated by Presidential order. “This outrageous explosion of watch-listing—of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield—was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source said.

The Intercept website.

The documents that The Intercept published, not only confirmed what had earlier been reported in the New York Times but provided additional details as to how the kill machine, which Obama was overseeing, was being built and institutionalized. “Taken together, the secret documents lead to the conclusion that Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an over-reliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and—due to a preference for assassination rather than capture—an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects,” Scahill wrote. In fact, what was happening was that assassination was being normalized as a “tool” of counterterrorism.

One of the features exposed in the documents was the extent of the process itself and the chain of command, by which names proposed to be reviewed by the President, made their way up through to the Tuesday meetings. For Somalia and Yemen, the process started at a military unit within the Joint Special Operations Command called TF 48-4, where military operators and specialists from other agencies would build the case for targeting a specific person for death. From there, the intelligence “package” on that person would be passed on to either U.S. Africa Command, for Somalia, or U.S. Central Command for Yemen, then on to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense. After that, it would be examined by the Principals Committee of the National Security Council and their deputies.

Pete Souza/White House
President Obama being briefed by his chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan. Brennan later became director of the CIA.

The Intercept noted that while there were various accounts of how this bureaucratic process functioned, they all stressed the role of John O. Brennan, who had been Obama’s counterterrorism advisor in the White House, before Obama appointed him CIA director in 2013. Brennan concentrated control over the nominations process in the White House.

Regardless of the role of Brennan, in every single instance, it was Obama who made the decision to put someone’s name on the kill list and who signed off on it. In other words, every single person killed by Obama’s drone program, was authorized for assassination by the President himself.

The process was of course a total violation of the Constitution. Aside from the fact that the United States was committing acts of war, in countries that it was not at war with, in violation of the Constitutional requirement for Congressional authorization, there was also the matter of the targeted killings of American citizens. The case of Anwar al-Awlaki is illustrative. Awlaki was killed ostensibly because of his relationship to Al-Qaeda, but he was killed without a trial, which every American is entitled to. However, he might have been an FBI informant carrying certain secrets about the targeting program—and might have even known about U.S. government ties to Al-Qaeda—but that story has yet to be fully told.

More Americans Murdered

But Awlaki wasn’t the only American known to have been killed by Obama. Samir Khan, another American, was killed along with Awlaki when a Hellfire missile hit their vehicle in October 2011. Khan was not an “intended target,” however. Two weeks later, Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki, was killed while having dinner with his cousins and some friends. Immediately after the strike, reported The Intercept, anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al-Qaeda and was twenty-one years old. When the family produced his birth certificate, the United States changed its position, and an anonymous official called the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.”

According to its own publicly released documents, the Obama Administration claimed that a targeted assassination decision had to meet three criteria:

  1. Near certainty that the terrorist target is present;
  2. Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed;
  3. An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation.

Yet, it appears that the Administration violated its own criteria repeatedly. One of the slides published by The Intercept depicts the results of an operation in Afghanistan, called Haymaker, covering the period from Jan. 1, 2012 to Feb. 28, 2013. The slide reports 219 killed in 56 drone strikes, but only 35 were designated targets. That is, 5 out of every 6 people killed were not “targeted” persons. During one five-month period in that campaign, the ratio was 9 out of 10.

Seventeen innocent civilians killed by a U.S. drone in Ra’ada, Yemen, in 2013.

The intelligence source who provided the documents to The Intercept said that in remote locations, labeling the dead as “enemies” until proven otherwise was commonplace. The process, he said, often depended on assumptions or best-guesses in remote provinces of Afghanistan or Pakistan—particularly if the dead were “military age males” (MAM). “If there is no evidence that proves a person killed in a strike was either not a MAM, or was a MAM but not an unlawful enemy combatant, then there is no question,” he said. They label them “enemies killed in action (EKIA).”

From there, it was only a short step to “signature strikes,” where the criteria allowed the targeting of people not based on who they were—which wasn’t known—but on patterns of activity. This may explain why weddings were frequent targets. Weddings featured military age males firing guns into the air, a common practice in tribal weddings.

In 2014, former commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. (ret.) John Abizaid, and Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks, who had served in the Pentagon during the first Obama Administration, issued a report warning that there were tremendous uncertainties in drone warfare and that these uncertainties “are multiplied further when the United States relies on intelligence and other targeting information provided by a host nation government. How can we be sure we are not being drawn into a civil war, or being used to target the domestic political enemies of the host state leadership?”

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Pete Souza/White House
Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama (on left), with national security team, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (seated right front), John Brennan and National Intelligence Director James Clapper (standing extreme right), receiving an update on the operation against Osama bin Laden, the day before bin Laden was killed.

In other words, the murder program was completely out of control and off the charts, but, as The Intercept report shows, it was embraced by Obama very early in his first term, facilitated not only by John Brennan, but also by then-CIA Director Michael Hayden. The fact is, a massive number of crimes were committed. And the official documents, including those classified documents leaked to The Intercept, make it clear that there was an absolutely unambiguous chain of command that led straight to Barack Obama.

And before he left office, Obama moved to formally institutionalize the killing machine he had honed to a fine edge. On Dec. 5, 2016, the Obama White House released a number of documents which, it claimed, “help to demonstrate that the United States acts consistently with our values and all applicable law, including the law of armed conflict and international human rights law.” The first of the newly released documents was a Presidential memorandum that “directs national security departments and agencies to prepare a formal report that describes key legal and policy frameworks currently guiding the United States’ use of military force and related national security operations, such as detention, transfer, and interrogation operations.” Accompanying the memorandum was a 60-page report which “provides in one place an articulation of the legal and policy frameworks which previously have been found across numerous speeches, public statements, reports, and other materials.”

Despite these lies, the truth is that the Obama Administration, over eight years, bombed seven different countries without Constitutionally required Congressional authorization and without any substantive Congressional scrutiny, instead relying, as the 60-page report showed, on the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Obama said repeatedly over the course of 2016 that he wanted to institutionalize the policies that have governed his Administration’s use of force, in hope that this would serve future administrations, and better position the public to judge the actions of government. Obama’s intent, in other words, is that the killing machine that he had constructed over the last eight years, go on killing.

But drones aren’t the only way, not even the main way that America has become a killing machine since 9/11. “Drone warfare aside, Americans should be appalled by how many people their elected government has directly or indirectly killed since the War on Terror began nearly 15 years ago,” wrote former CIA officer Philip Giraldi in a June 2016 article in the American Conservative. Giraldi usefully included the second and third order effects of these U.S. wars, effects resulting from the destruction of medical care and infrastructure, which produce enormous casualties, probably many more than die from direct kinetic effects. The total death toll so far could range from 2 to 4 million, Giraldi reports. “The past 15 years have institutionalized and validated the killing process.”