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O'Connell writes: "The Obama administration has produced its own infamous memo; like many of the torture memos, it was written by lawyers in the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel. It concerns something that many consider worse than torture: the memo apparently seeks to justify 'targeted killing.'"

An unmanned Predator drone of the type operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (photo: Rex Features/Sipa Press)
An unmanned Predator drone of the type operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (photo: Rex Features/Sipa Press)

Why Obama's 'Targeted Killing' Is Worse Than Bush's Torture

By Mary Ellen O'Connell, Guardian UK

20 January 12


y June 2004, it was confirmed that the US was using torture at secret detention sites and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It was in that month that piles of "torture memos" were released to the public. Torture did not officially end until President Obama took office in January 2009.

A similar story is emerging with respect to targeted killing. The Obama administration has produced its own infamous memo; like many of the torture memos, it was written by lawyers in the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel. It concerns something that many consider worse than torture: the memo apparently seeks to justify "targeted killing".

Calls have gone out for the release of the memo, but there really is no need. We did need to see the torture memos, but not because anyone with legal expertise on the subject would be enlightened by the analysis – torture is absolutely prohibited. The legal analysis could only be specious. Rather, prior to mid 2004, the use of torture, rendition and secret detention were only rumored. The fact of the memos gave credence to speculation.

In the case of targeted killing, the world can see what is happening. The memo need not be published to confirm the fact. And, as with torture, the memo will not contain a persuasive legal argument respecting the fundamental human rights and humanitarian law at issue.

"Targeted killing" is the killing of certain individuals away from battle zones using military means, including missiles, bombs and commando raids. The missiles and bombs are often delivered by drone aircraft. Given the munitions, it is the rare attack that spares the lives of bystanders – over 2,200 persons are estimated to have been killed in the three years of the Obama administration in Pakistan alone. We have no estimates for deaths in Yemen or Somalia, the other scenes of relentless attacks.

"Targeted killing" has become the euphemism du jour. Remember "harsh interrogation"? The conduct discussed in the killing memo was once simply referred to as assassination.

More and more people are pushing back against the policy. They are reacting, no doubt, to the fact that President Obama has authorized many times the killings that President Bush did. Obama apparently authorized the killing of an American in Yemen, and he is now engaged in the building of drone bases to continue the campaign of assassination. Greg Miller of the Washington Post notes that "no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation's security goals."

In 2001, the US ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, stated on Israeli television in connection with Israeli targeted killing of suspected terrorists:

"The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that."

The US did not support such killing for fundamental reasons of law and morality. Fundamental principles of law protect the human right to life and due process of law. Unlike torture, which is never permitted, states are permitted to allow designated authorities to carry out the use of lethal force in certain limited situations. In situations of armed conflict hostilities, lawful combatants will not be prosecuted for killing that complies with international humanitarian law. Today, under the international legal definition of armed conflict, the United States is involved in such hostilities in one country only: Afghanistan.

Beyond Afghanistan, any use of lethal force by designated authorities of the United States must follow the normal human rights limits on peacetime resort to lethal force. Authorities may engage in lethal force when necessary to save a human life immediately, if there is no alternative. In other cases, an attempt to arrest is required, followed by a fair trial within a reasonable period.

These restrictive international legal rules on killing are derived from moral principle, just as the rules against torture are. Torture and targeted killing have more in common, however. Neither is an effective means toward the ends sought by those who employ them: torture is an unreliable means of information gathering; targeted killing is ineffective on dealing with the challenge of non-state actor terrorist or militant groups.

But even if there was any data at all about assassination having a long-term positive impact on suppressing terrorism – which there is not – the data would not change the law and morality against it. Indeed, the president criticized the assassination of a nuclear scientist in Tehran. Drone attacks outside of armed conflict zones are committing the same wrong – though usually more bystanders are killed than was the case in Iran.

President Barack Obama's 3 January 2011 letter introducing his national security strategy for the coming decade states that America's overriding goals are "security", "prosperity" and a "just and sustainable international order where the rights and responsibilities of nations and peoples are upheld, especially the fundamental rights of every human being." Impressive, even inspiring – but for the fact that the president's campaign of assassination is denying many hundreds of individuals their right to life. The security strategy looks set to dramatically ramp up the number and deployment of attack drones from new permanent bases around the world.

Neither torture nor targeted killing will accomplish the goal of a "just and sustainable international order where the rights and responsibilities of nations and peoples are upheld". Human rights advocates, legal scholars, religious leaders, occupiers and voters are again pushing back against a practice carried out in our names that must end. your social media marketing partner


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-14 # nice2blucky 2012-01-20 18:52
This article is a bit heady for most of this lot. Better send this one over to Rolling Stone or Salon.

Many here only want what reinforces their idolization of Obama and has no implication that he is unqualified to be President.

Obama is a good man. He is not cynically killing innocent human life.

If anything, he has studiously and conscientiously weighed alternatives, implications, and consequences before settling upon his neo-con military strategy -- and has decided so, not out of cravenness or because there will be no personal accountability to him or that he will benefit politically as an election strategy. He doesn't need to prove he's strong; he stands against the progressive left to show that.

After factoring in all relevant information, he's concluded that there never will be another Republican President; the world ends in 2012, remember? And even if there is another Republican President -- and 2013 -- they aren't the types to push the envelope further or use his actions to justify theirs. They are better than that, right? As is Obama; he has a Nobel Peace Prize, you know.

So please don't mention Obama's failings that have nothing to do with not being able to control Congress. It is dangerous to the delicate state of the Republican-fear ing delusional Opologist.

No. Nothing to see here.

Republicans are worse, Republicans are worse... Republicans are worse, Republicans are worse...
+8 # Kiwikid 2012-01-21 00:57
The article was fine, nice2blucky. I had no trouble at all with it. Your post is beyond me. But then, I'm not American...
+5 # shjlaw 2012-01-21 02:45
I suppose I am a semi-apologist for Obama, given what he inherited and the anti-Obama Congress he's had to deal with. Regardless, these targeted killings are abhorrent to everything I know and believe. I can't bring myself to apologize for that. And yet, to use your words: "Republicans are worse, Republicans are worse... Republicans are worse, Republicans are worse..."
-7 # BobbyLip 2012-01-21 04:18
Who the hell do you think you're talking to?
+9 # tomo 2012-01-21 14:47
#nice2blucky: Whatever others may say of your comment, I have no trouble at all with it. Republicans of course will have nothing but contempt for your comment--becaus e a careful reading makes it crystal clear you are not a Republican. The sacrilege in your comment is that you attack our sacred idol--Barack Obama. I don't mind American idols--if they can sing and dance. But I don't like idols in the White House. Neither do you. Most of us Democrats though seem moving toward terminal incoherence. Things that were deemed intolerable abominations when they were done by Bush-Cheney are now being sanctified in the nostrils of the faithful while they are being endured, repeated, and extended by our current Abomination. The death-by-drone is an excellent example.
+1 # Michael Lee Bugg 2012-01-27 14:27
I agree 110% mice2buckley! Obama threw away the moral high ground and the right to attack Bush's idiot , immoral, or out right illegal policies with his actions since he entered office. Sometimes I feel like hi is the proverbial "Manchurian candidate"! Had he done what progressives and liberals thought he wa going to do to "change" the monumental mess Bush made he would be cruising to an easy reelection because those who voted for him would still be solidly behind him and the swing voters can now see that the Republicans only offer more of the Bush nonsense that got us into this mess! As my father would have said, "Obama appears to be educated beyond the level of his intelligence"! That, or he takes pride in appeasing the rich???
+6 # coati 2012-01-20 23:26
I would like to present the notion that two political parties is not enough. You write
"Republicans are worse." And increasingly, the real difference is less and less visible, as witnessed by the scores of Dems who voted pro NDAA. So rather than accept the 'lesser of two evils" paradigm, consider supporting write in candidates, Libertarian, and Independents. To vote for the person, not the party. "this ain't". T heads.
-4 # James38 2012-01-21 00:04
I think the author might benefit from the book, "Obama's Wars" by Bob Woodward. It helps one see how the world looks when you have the President's shoes on.

She says, " Obama apparently authorized the killing of an American in Yemen". No, not apparently, obviously. The "American" was Anwar al-Awlaki, a traitor if there ever was one, who was ferociously advocating the killing of Americans. He was effective and relentless. He didn't care how many were killed as a result of his raving, that was his goal. That is an enemy you can not ignore, unless you are suicidal, and it doesn't matter where he is.

Obama also authorized the attack on bin Laden's compound. Was that unjustified? Would an attempt to arrest bin Laden have been better? Hard to second guess, but it seems unlikely.

But to say that Obama's policies are worse than George W Bush is really stretching a point beyond reason. Bush lied to get the US into a war that was unjustified, wrecked Iraq worse than ever, killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, and mismanaged the country so badly it is incredible. He was of course responsible for all of the thousands of American deaths and injuries as well.

(to be continued)
+13 # RMDC 2012-01-21 09:38
James38 says, "The "American" was Anwar al-Awlaki, a traitor if there ever was one, "

I strongly disagree with this. Al Awlaki was only a "youtube preacher." He preached against US wars and against US control of the middle east. He advised Arabs to defend themselves. I hardly see that as treason -- and treason against whom.

It is clear as day that the US is wrong in its war on terror. It is a war of aggression against all people of developing nations. The neo-cons conceptualized this war as the US campaign to gain a military dominance of the whole world. Everyone should speak as loudly and as strongly as they can against it. That is what Al Awlaki did and he was killed for it. We are all terrorists in the minds of some people in the US regime. If they could kill all of their critics, they would do it. But it is they -- inc. Obama -- who are wrong and not us.
-9 # James38 2012-01-21 00:06

Obama extricated the US from that mess, and hopefully we can stay out. If you want an end to lousy murderous policies, I suggest that you give equal time to Assad, the Russian leadership, Sudan and Chad, and all the dictators and murderous governments in Africa, to mention just a few.

Making it look like Obama is the villain is disingenuous at best, absurd at worst. Would you like to have his job?
+5 # Glen 2012-01-21 10:16
It isn't just Obama, James38, it is the system, which Obama is very much a part of. There are no politicians, most especially president and those close to the president. They are complicit in the agenda. Obama is not carrying on as George W. Bush, et al., were. He is carrying out even more of the agenda, which requires further operations and takeovers. All done without that in your face Texas twang.

As for the list of leaders/dictato rs, the U.S. has supported many of them and done their part to use them to carry out that over-all agenda. That began a long damn time ago and got worse toward the end of the century. Clinton made it easier for George W. George W. made it easier for Obama. Research the PNAC, neo-cons and neo-liberals. It isn't a conspiracy, but an over PLAN.
0 # RMDC 2012-01-21 11:41
Glen's right. Obama is just the water boy for the CIA, neo-cons, Pentagon, and the imperialist faction in the US. If he had any courage, he'd stand up to them. But he has no backbone. He's bent over licking neo-con ass just like his mentor, Bill Clinton, did.
-2 # dquandle 2012-01-21 14:03
No, and I want him not to have his job. He is a murderer and a liar, a very dangerous man.
+3 # Smiley 2012-01-21 01:54
Does every president have to become an "evil doer"?
0 # sandyboy 2012-01-21 03:21
No surprise that Obama denounced the killing of a scientist in Iran - I guess that was one he didn't secretly authorise. Maybe. It's do-as-I-say, not as-I-do. There are no good politicians. Period.
-1 # James38 2012-01-21 09:57
Sandy, I would like to see you tell us in detail how you would run the foreign and domestic policies of the US. Complaining without providing alternatives is not very useful. We have a government, the world is the way it is. What are we to do? Tell us your version. To provide an alternative way forward, we must discuss ideas for the future.
+3 # Rita Walpole Ague 2012-01-21 11:45
Long term goals and short term goals for the future:

Long term: evolve and turn into Star Trek types, with their no need for total control over everything and everyone in the universe, and their rejection of greed and over-consumptio n. Instead, the Trek m.o. was portrayed as there to assist when assistance was needed.

Short term: Education of the purposefully dumbed down American populace to recognize the takeover of both major political parties, the removal of the critical right to vote and have the vote honestly counted, the rule of law gone bye bye, etc. Such education ain't gonna be easy, with the free press nowdays being anything but free and internet free usage in great jeapordy. But word of mouth it we must.

+6 # reiverpacific 2012-01-21 07:06
"Neither torture nor targeted killing will accomplish the goal of a "just and sustainable international order where the rights and responsibilitie s of nations and peoples are upheld". Human rights advocates, legal scholars, religious leaders, occupiers and voters are again pushing back against a practice carried out in our names that must end".
The basic fact is -and don't take my word for it -look at history, which will show that "In our names" is a farce", especially in these times.
Has anything been done globally or nationally "In our names" since WW11 (and before)?
"Our names" are consistently ignored until we push back hard enough, like the Wobblies, Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam and now Iraq/Afghanista n, "OCCUPY"! Massive civil disobedience is the only way to even have "Our names" even slightly noticed.
One of the most significant tasks of "Occupy" is to separate "Our names" from those who are truly named and acted for as the owner class and who would heedlessly, for narrow, short term profit perpetrate war, divide-and-conq uer and scorched-earth destruction even of the planet we share.
Obama will eventually listen to critical mass, if nothing else, for his own survival and place in history, which Bush the twit and his handlers never would.
Remember that hubristic statement by the late, arrogant Alexander Haig "Let them march in the street as long as they pay their taxes" (to finance the death machine)? That's what we are up against!
+9 # sandyboy 2012-01-21 07:48
When people like Obama and Kissinger have Nobel Peace Prizes, two things are certain. One, irony is dead. Two, the damn thing should be abolished. It's beyond satire.
-1 # James38 2012-01-21 10:00
See my response to your previous comment. Name calling and shrill criticisms gain us little if not accompanied with positive suggestions for a better way forward.

(I sympathize with the reasons Obama was given the Nobel. I have no idea why Kissinger ever got one.)
0 # humanmancalvin 2012-01-21 08:57
Tough call here for a Liberal like myself. I would rather see targeted killings of True Terrorists, as the Iraqi people were not but labeled so. Versus boots on the ground ala again the woeful horror of Bush's Iraq. Facing reality, there are those out to cause violent harm to America and Americans. No amount of turning of the cheek would satisfy these individuals. President Obama is the leader of this country and has made an extremely difficult decision to defend it at all costs. This of course is the weak on terror president harped by the sickness named the GOP.
+3 # Kootenay Coyote 2012-01-21 09:49
Right principle but specious argument: both evils are equally & utterly unacceptable. As for ‘innocent bystanders’: a lot of innocent Iraqis, Afghans &c have been tortured, too. As for ‘extrajudicial murders’, what’s the difference in effect & principle from a roadside bomb? They’re killing their enemy for the same reason the enemy’s killing them - no high ground anywhere here.
+2 # Glen 2012-01-22 11:01
No, Kootenay, the "enemy" is not killing U.S. troops for the same reason they are being killed. Afghan people and Iraqis are fighting to get foreign troops out of their country, no matter who they are or their political affiliation in country. We would come up with IEDs for that reason, ourselves.
+8 # okeefecybermesa 2012-01-21 10:22
It seems that the Obama supporters (apologists) are missing a very simple fact and are dancing around it. Whether or not the world is as scary as some portray it or even if Al Awlaki was what O said he was, he was still a citizen of America and the world and therefore was guaranteed certain rights. We have no need for these attacks and would greatly raise our esteem in the world's eyes (and like it or not that will become more and more important). Use the justice system, interpol, and the LAW, let me repeat, the LAW. "There is no flag large enough to cover up the killing of innocents people". Remember, "innocent until proven guilty"? You all may need that concept someday.
+4 # cordleycoit 2012-01-21 13:02
Watching the skies for drones. Does anyone think that targeted murders are going to end at the borders? Those who think this can then express their horror at what governments do and how power corrupts.Just imagine what will happen when the private sector corporate spies who watch over us get their hands on the 'joystick.'
0 # Nominae 2012-01-24 03:59
Quoting cordleycoit:
Watching the skies for drones. Does anyone think that targeted murders are going to end at the borders? Those who think this can then express their horror at what governments do and how power corrupts.Just imagine what will happen when the private sector corporate spies who watch over us get their hands on the 'joystick.'

Cheer up ! They are already supplying drones and flight training to at least two local police departments in Texas and other departments elsewhere ! We do have, however, the word of one of the Texas police chiefs that the drones will "never be used in the wrong way". Makes *me* feel perfectly cozy !

(For those who understandably need to cite source, google away ! It's all there.)

So, to borrow the catchphrase from "Stargazer", "Remember to keep looking up !"
+2 # goodsensecynic 2012-01-21 13:20
The dirty-filty-ath eistic-communis tic-anarchistic -Marxist side of me wants to say that Democritans and Republicrats are just the two sides of the coinage of money-politics. The state is the instrument of the ruling class, and the personalities of alleged leaders are of no importance. The parties are "tweedle-dum" and "tweedle-dumber ." Obama is just a possibly well-meaning pawn. He is the human face of corporate capitalism. Etc.

The liberal, progressive, democratic, humanistic side of me wants to say that words and policies and beliefs matter, and that it is important to stand righteously in support of humane principles, such as opposition to state-supported murder, no matter who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.

Caught in this dilemma, I guess the best I can do is think of Sisyphus, try to be lucid, accept the absurdity of the situation and (as Camus averred) be "happy."

Or, to quote Hooker, to continue to speak out for good and against evil so that "posterity may know we did not, loosely through silence, let things slip away as in a dream."

The things? The ideals that Americans pretend to have, the assumptions that good and evil can seriously be contemplated, and the hope there will be a "posterity" that might one day care.
+2 # yakinsea 2012-01-21 15:09
I am with you goodsensecynic.

However, I would add the pragmatic side of me. This is less clear.

In the case of conflict with a country led by a charismatic leader bent on military conflict or ethnic cleansing, what is to be done? Enter with armies and settle for tens or hundreds of thousand casualties? Endless sanctions that kill a half million babies as happened in Iraq? Or a drone hit?

In the absence of an effective world organization to deal with Rwanda early on before the genocide, would a well-placed drone strike taking out the leader splash water on the fire or gasoline? Would an invasion by the “World's Police“, a role most of us in the USA would rather avoid, be better?

I think there is room for drones, but it must come from a framework yet to be built - one that features clarity, rule of international law that still needs to be updated, and human rights consideration.

Our use of drones - anywhere in the world, done in secrecy, seemingly unending and ever escalating, with self-interest at its core, and no building of the legal/moral framework necessary is horrifying !!!
+3 # coati 2012-01-21 15:20
There are some recent uploads on youtube showing the recent bombings by drones. Predator missiles causes huge 'collateral damage' as they call it. ( Sleeping, unarmed civilians, children) In one section of the footage a dog is burning by the side of the road. Another a child's body and mouth are burned amidst an emergency room with other children with burns and lost limbs ). Unforgiveable. It is wiser to have select targets whose death will prohibit more violence than to send a drone to commit mayhem to civilians. Terrorism has many manifestations.

Beyond that thought, I would like to agree with the comments that the US needs to stop being involved in the undercurrents of civil wars and aggressions between countries around the world that is not our business. I would also propose this message to Anti-American terrorists: Terrorists ! Please vent your wrath against the US CIA, FBI and other agencies that hide from the American People what they are doing. We are sorry - we are fed lies and those who tell the truth are arrested and imprisoned.

Thanks for reading. Act with Heart.
+3 # sandyboy 2012-01-21 17:51
James38: I don't really need to say much as it's been said by others above. But basically, yes Obama has a hard job and no I wouldn't like it even if I was eligible. My solution is that America should do its best to help the world without thinking it has the divine right to rule and dominate and have control of all the oil etc. It should obey its own and international laws, and not detain people without trial or murder them without due process. It should care for its own citizens and their medical and housing needs and not the rich. It should not back Israel when that land assassinates Iranian scientists because they might one day have nukes while Israel has hundreds. In short, Obama should be the Yes We Can man he campaigned as. I guess you won't agree, but I'm glad to see many other posters here do.
+3 # sandyboy 2012-01-21 18:00
PS: to be fair to James38, yes, the world is, sadly, the way it is. And always has been. We denounced the Nazi use of torture in WW2, yet a few years ago it was revealed that in that era the UK had a safe house in London where captured high-ranking Germans were tortured (sorry, harshly interrogated) for info. Hypocrisy. All I AM saying is: we can be better than that.
+1 # MistySkye 2012-01-23 15:19
Agree totally with "Vermont Grandmother!" Am a sister of a deceased Vietnam Vet--he was eventually awarded 100% disability, PTSD, Diebetes--serio us relational problems with family members, friendship problems! Thanks to his 3 tours in Vietnam! We lost anyway--NO WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER! Presidents start wars so the CORPORTATE FRIENDS can make Millions/Billio ns of $$. They are Sociopaths who care about $$ more than Human Life! We, the people, are left to sort out the these difficult problems of PTSD, Guilt, whatever the cause, after our Vets come home--the Pay does not Justify the Means, etc! War is Hell does not begin to cover the issues our military personnel face! And then they come home!!!

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