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How Washington's Political Culture Turned a Community Organizer Into a Deadly Drone Killer President

A letter to president Obama.

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In any case, haven’t you already managed to do to yourself what you planned to do to him -- without cutting down the killing appreciably, including the deaths of  civilianschildren, at least four American citizens, and a Yemeni  deputy provincial governor who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda? If press reports are to be believed, you’ve already been fully involved in regularizing, bureaucratizing, legalizing, and codifying your drone wars. In other words, you’ve put yourself deep inside a developing system in which you no longer have a hope in hell of imagining the world any other way.

Here’s a little history of the process (not that you of all people don’t already know it): You inherited an ad hoc Bush administration program of CIA drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal borderlands that started in 2004 and was originally aimed at top al-Qaeda types. But as will happen, those “targeted killings” became ever less targeted, spreading to lower level al-Qaeda types, Taliban leaders, Taliban "foot soldiers," and finally what came to be called “signature strikes” against “ patterns of behavior.” (A group of military-age males with weapons, say, in an area believed to be controlled by Islamic extremists.)

We know that President Bush  took you aside at the changeover moment and urged you to continue the drone wars in Pakistan (along with his cyberwar program against Iran). And though it must have been very new to you, you did so, expanding them in Pakistan and extending them in a major way to Yemen, while ever more  drone bases were built in key areas of the world and ever more drones  ordered up.

As this happened, those wars became ever less ad hoc, ever more organized and bureaucratic. A regular process for deciding on individual “targets” came into being. You had your “baseball cards” (PowerPoint slides on potential individuals to target) that you discussed in your regular “ Terror Tuesday” meetings.  Where once George W. Bush kept in his desk drawer a “ personal scorecard,” a list of bad guys to cross out whenever one of them was killed, you now have an official “ kill list.” Where once these strikes were just launched, you got the Office of Legal Counsel to produce a  50-page legalistic justification for using drones to kill a U.S. citizen. It and other legal memos on drone use have  never been released to the public or even to congressional leaders. Still, your top officials feel free to  use them to their advantage in public defense of U.S. counterterror policies. (Note that the Bush administration did the same thing with its torture policies, producing Justice Department “ torture memos” that “legalized” acts which, in almost any other context, or if committed by any enemy nation, would have been denounced as nightmarish acts of international illegality and that, in the past, the U.S. had prosecuted as crimes of war.)

Now, Shane reports, you’ve had the urge to codify it all and so institutionalize a presidential right to conduct assassination campaigns without regard to Congress, the American people, national sovereignty, the world, or previous standards of legality. And that is an accomplishment of the first order. I mean -- Voilà! -- you’ve officially created the box that no one can think outside of.

You are -- so the story goes -- the most powerful man on Earth. From the Oval Office, you should have the widest of wide-angle views. But sometimes don’t you feel that you’re trapped like a rat inside a maze in part (but only in part) of your own creation?

 
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