"Outsourcing" is a dirty word in Washington these days. But officials are strangely silent when it involves targeted killings. This column has repeatedly focused on the scope, distinction, legality, and strategic effectiveness of America's Third War of non-battlefield targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. Among the most widely promulgated criticisms of U.S. drone strikes is the absence of any transparency in decision making, limited congressional and judicial oversight, and the potential for civilian harm without any apparent corrective action. Policymakers and analysts have offered suggestions for how -- over 10 years after they began -- the Obama administration could comprehensively reform its targeted killing policies. Finally, President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder promised some reforms related to transparency "in the months ahead." That was several months ago. Given the Obama administration's refusal to provide witnesses to recent congressional hearings on drones -- or answer clarifying questions posed by journalists and policymakers -- it is likely that forthcoming announcements will fall short of the president's repeated goal of making his, "the most transparent administration in history."
However, if you're concerned by the Obama administration's targeted killing policies, don't overlook similar attacks conducted by allies and partners who receive U.S. money, weapons, or actionable intelligence. When the United States provides other states or non-state actors with the capabilities that enable lethal operations -- without which they would not happen -- it bears primary responsibility for the outcome. Whatever drone strike reforms the White House offers, or if additional congressional hearings are held, they must take into account America's troubling role in client-state targeted killings. Consider some of the most egregious recent examples which the United States directly abetted:
Somalia. Beginning in 2002, a small number of CIA officers and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces established a task force that attempted to capture or kill approximately 20 operatives from al Qaeda's East Africa cell. The strategy for achieving this short-term objective was the "use of ‘non-traditional liaison partners' (e.g. militia leaders)," as a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, later described it. For his unmatched history of U.S. counterterror operations, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, Jeremy Scahill interviewed one of these liaison partners, the warlord Mohamed Afrah Qanyare. As Scahill writes, in return for $100,000 to $150,000 a month from his CIA handlers, "Qanyare and his comrades engaged in an all-out targeted kill and capture campaign against anyone -- Somali or foreign -- they suspected of being a supporter of any Islamic movement." An intelligence source later told journalist Sean Naylor that the CIA warlords helped capture perhaps "seven or eight" al Qaeda figures in Somalia.
Northern Iraq. In November 2007, the United States opened a combined "intelligence fusion cell" in Ankara, Turkey, where, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable: "We have made available to the Turks a dedicated RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, U-2 imagery, and full motion video from a Predator....U.S. and Turkish personnel work side-by-side to analyze incoming intelligence from these systems." As a Pentagon official characterized the cooperation soon after the Ankara cell opened, the United States was "essentially handing them their targets." Every State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released since 2007 notes instances of civilians being killed in Turkish counterterrorism operations against suspected PKK militants, though there is never any mention of U.S. culpability.
In December 2011, a U.S. drone provided the initial video that led to a Turkish airstrike which killed 34 civilians, including 17 children. As a senior Pentagon official doth professed too much: "The Turks made the call. It wasn't an American decision." The recently released State Department human rights report merely noted the catastrophe: "Opposition and human rights organizations alleged that the incident was the result of a failure to implement adequate controls to safeguard civilian life." Unmentioned is what controls at all are in place to prevent U.S.-supplied intelligence from being used in future Turkish airstrikes that place civilians at risk.
Joseph Kony. In December 2008, four Ugandan MI-24 helicopters launched rockets and opened fire against four camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park. As journalist Scott Johnson reported, earlier that day, at a staging base in Uganda, U.S. military advisers used maps to show the helicopter pilots the targets: "four distinct ‘fishhook shape' camps spread out in cleared areas of the park." The operation was part of a significant U.S. military commitment to help the Ugandan government kill the Lord's Resistance Army leader, which was apparently a priority for President George W. Bush. (A senior White House official later told me that in his second term, Bush asked about the efforts to kill Kony as much as he did Osama bin Laden.) The 2008 attack, however, was a failure: "the helicopter crews later stated that several dozen people, including women and children, had been caught in the open." Three years later, Obama authorized the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisers to "fuse [American] intelligence with [Ugandan] operational planning" to get Kony. As Pentagon official Alexander Vershbow told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that month: "We certainly are trying to enhance the capacity of our partners to capture or kill Joseph Kony and other commanders. But they will be doing the actual military mission on the ground."