It's hard to know if 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a target or collateral damage.
Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, was killed last fall at a barbeque with friends. His father, Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida supporter and also American-born, was killed in a drone strike two weeks earlier in Yemen.
The two of them, plus one more man, now make three Americans — three of thousands — who are believed to have been killed by America's top secret drone warfare program.
"We have no idea of why this happened, how this happened, what the standards were," says journalist Tom Junod of Esquire. "We are kept completely in the dark."
Just last week, Pakistani officials say 18 more people were killed by drones, including possibly a commander of the Haqqani network.
In a July article, Junod labeled Obama's administration a "lethal presidency." He argues that in an era of drones and highly trained special forces, the commander in chief now has unprecedented power to kill groups of people.
The country doesn't have to attack with an army sent to a rogue nation. Rather, it uses technology, with drones or with elite special forces, killing people individually.
None of this has been confirmed by any official sources, only by anonymous government leaks, most notably to The New York Times, which reported earlier this summer that the president oversees secret kill lists of suspected terrorist leaders and makes the final call on whom to take out.
"Nobody inherited that power when it was being used the way that Barack Obama did. And certainly nobody has expanded the use of that power the way he has," Junod says. "He has turned it from a power to a policy."
Expansion Of Special Operations
Eric Schmitt, who covers terrorism and national security for The Times, has written about a piece of that policy: the rise of special operations forces. Part of that rise, he says, is a demand for less defense spending, and fewer enlistees. But mostly, Schmitt says, it was a change set in motion after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Right after 9/11, the immediate impact was, how do we get a force to Afghanistan?" he says. "And the only force capable of going in quickly were the small number of American special operations forces."
There are more than 60,000 special operations personnel, including civilians and military — roughly double the number there were on Sept. 11, 2001, Schmitt says.
The budget has also increased. Now, it's more than $10 billion for the 2013 fiscal year [pdf], up from about $4 billion in 2011 [pdf].
The forces have a political advantage, in addition to a military one, Schmitt says.
"This president has learned the lessons the hard way in many ways of large land deployments, and the backlash that can cause in Muslim countries," he says. "It becomes a very attractive political option to deploy small numbers of forces that can do a ... range of tasks."
But there are concerns about the program, especially as its operations are more covert. When the CIA has missions overseas, there is a specific protocol required to inform Congress, Schmitt says.
"The reporting requirements aren't quite as clear when it comes to special operations forces, particularly if they're operating [on] a covert-type basis," he says.
Some lawmakers are seeking to clarify this. But overall, Schmitt doesn't think the use of special forces will change if there's new leadership in the White House because of their "flexibility and versatility in the type of missions they can carry out."
The Willingness To Use Drones
Special forces are just one part of the government's secret counterterrorism operations. The technology behind drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles, as the military prefers — has also changed dramatically in the past few years.
Under President Bush, the U.S. used mainly the Predator drone system, which was originally designed only for surveillance. It had to be retrofitted to carry a single missile. Today, its replacement, a Reaper drone, can carry six missiles. Others like it can fly longer. They have better surveillance capabilities, too.
"Then of course you also have the political side of this, the willingness to use them," says Peter Singer, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "That clearly has gone up in the Obama administration."
The operations themselves are carried out by different entities. For example, the military has overt operations in Afghanistan. On the covert side, Singer says, the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, each has its own operations.
"These two different covert sides interact, but they do have different kill lists, so to speak," he says.
These multiple lists exist to cover different political missions, Singer says, but there's also a lot of bureaucracy involved. Each list has different requirements for who qualifies.
"That ad hoc arrangement has worked, but there are some concerns about the long-term precedents that it's setting," he says.
Singer says there should be more oversight from Congress. The leaks to the media make it appear as though President Obama himself has been making the final call.
"The concern in the long term is we might be reassured by having someone who is a former law professor taking on that role," Singer says. "There's a lot of people who I think are comfortable with a president who is from their own political party, who I can imagine reacting very differently with a different president from a different political party or maybe when it moves beyond just being about traditional al-Qaida."
The executive branch has said it's following due process — within the executive branch.
"It may make sense in the here and now," Singer says, "but when we look at it as a long-term proposition, it may fall apart as being the best possible way."
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