2. We prefer capturing suspected terrorists.
"Whenever it is possible to capture a suspected terrorist, it is the unqualified preference of the administration to take custody of that individual so we can obtain information that is vital to the safety and security of the American people." ("Strengthening Our Security by Adhering to Our Values and Laws," speech, Sept. 16, 2011)
By the time Obama entered office, the United States had basically quit capturing terrorists in non-battlefield situations. This was not always the case. Although it may be difficult to recall, in the 14 months after the 9/11 attacks, more than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives and affiliates were detained in over 100 countries. Most were eventually released, but hundreds of others (plus additional suspected terrorists captured in the subsequent half-decade) were transferred to CIA black sites, Guantánamo Bay, or U.S.-controlled prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq. By no later than 2006, however, the Bush administration stopped detentions because the White House and Congress could not reach an agreement over the legal jurisdiction of captured suspected terrorists.
In late 2009, this was made plain when Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reportedly told Obama, "We do not have a plausible capture strategy." According to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture, "The inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favored killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them." And in the words of an anonymous "top counterterrorism adviser": "We never talked about this openly, but it was always a back-of-the-mind thing for us.… Anyone who says it wasn't is not being straight."
This reality was recently echoed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, who serves on the Armed Services and Judiciary committees: "We lack, as a nation, a place to put terrorists if we catch them.… I can tell you that the operators are in a bad spot out there. They know that if they capture a guy, it creates a nightmare. And it's just easier to kill 'em." This perverse incentive remains in place today and largely explains why around 3,000 suspected terrorists and militants have been killed by drone strikes under Obama and only a handful have been captured.
3. We don't kill civilians.
Stephanopoulos: "Do you stand by the statement you have made in the past that, as effective as they have been, they have not killed a single civilian? That seems hard to believe."
Brennan: "What I said was that over a period of time before my public remarks that we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant being killed. Unfortunately, in war, there are casualties, including among the civilian population.… And unfortunately, sometimes you have to take life to save lives." (This Week with George Stephanopoulos, April 29, 2012)
In his public comments, Brennan is clear that the Obama administration endorses a drone-first eliminationist strategy for dealing with al Qaeda -- and any "military-age males" nearby. This requires a tremendous amount of killing. In June 2011, Brennan claimed: "There hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop." He later, however, provided a statement to the New York Times that the newspaper said "adjusted the wording of his earlier comment": "Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq."
Brennan did not clarify what constituted "credible evidence," but as Justin Elliott and I myself quickly pointed out, there were many public reports -- from Pakistani and Yemeni reporters and anonymous administration officials -- of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes. Either Brennan did not receive the same reports of civilian casualties as other administration officials did (an implausible notion), he lacks Internet access to read these anonymous comments (equally implausible because Brennan closely responds to critics of targeted killings in his following media appearances), or he was lying. Regardless, his belief in the infallibility of the find-fix-finish cycle defies an understanding of the inherent flaws and limitations of even the most precise uses of lethal force.