The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program by Jeremy Scahill and the Staff of The Intercept (Simon & Schuster, 2016); 256 pages.
Last summer, the Obama administration finally made good on its promise to provide some transparency to its targeted killing program — well, sort of. On a Friday before the long July Fourth weekend, the executive branch released the number range of people killed by U.S. airstrikes between 2009 and 2015, most presumed to be by drones, far away from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The estimated number: approximately 2,500 people.
Independent analysts and journalists reported similar numbers. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for instance, counted 2,753. But there was a subset of the total number of people killed reported by the government that was positively ludicrous when you understand a bit about the U.S. target-killing program: its toll on civilians. According to the Obama administration, U.S. airstrikes killed anywhere from 64 to 116 civilians between 2009 and 2015. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, begs to differ, tallying a range of 380 to 801 innocents killed.
That of course raises the question: How can there be such wide disparities when it comes to civilian deaths? This question is made all the more urgent since the August release of the once-secret Presidential Policy Guidance forced by an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Otherwise known as the “Drone Playbook,” the 18-page document states “absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants.”
For the corpse counters in the Obama administration, there’s a pretty simple way around that: Whoever died in a strike was an “enemy killed in action” until proven otherwise. If presumption of innocence is a dying notion in our courts at home, it’s long been dead in the hinterlands of the Middle East, where death can come from the air-conditioned safety of a U.S. drone control room as pilots extrajudicially deliver death like a divinity’s lightning bolt from thousands of miles away.
Much of what we know about the U.S. targeted-killing program comes from the work of human- rights organizations such as the ACLU (where I work), and investigative journalists. In the latter camp, some of the best reporting on the U.S. targeted-killing program has come from the online publication The Intercept. In The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program, Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars and Blackwater, and the staff of The Intercept plunge the reader into the sordid business of the targeted-killing program and the dehumanizing culture it spawns.