US to expand assassination program to northern Africa
11 February 2013
The Obama administration is discussing the expansion of its drone program into Algeria and other countries in northwest Africa, according to media reports. The preparations to extend the military and CIA “kill lists” takes place amidst proposals to more securely institutionalize the global program of assassination.
According to a front-page report in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal headlined “Push to Expand US ‘Kill List,’” the immediate target of the extension of the drone program is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian who has claimed responsibility for the operation to seize control of a natural gas facility in Amenas, Algeria in January. An Algerian military raid on the compound—a critical energy facility operated in collaboration with multinational companies—led to the death of 69 people.
According to the Journal, “Some US officials are pressing for a more direct involvement in the hunt for Mr. Belmokhtar, whether with drones, other aircraft or American forces. Such an effort could rely on the military’s special-operations units, with help from the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said.”
Assassinations have thus far focused on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and the northeast African nation of Somalia. The expansion of drone killing to northwest Africa is part of an intensified focus of all the major imperialist powers on northern Africa—including the US-led war in Libya in 2011 and the French-led operation currently underway in Mali.
The US government has already secured a status of forces agreement to establish a drone base in Niger, which is bordered by Algeria on the North and Mali on the West.
The position of the Obama administration is that it has the right to assassinate anyone, including US citizens, without geographical constraint or deference to considerations of national sovereignty. The Justice Department White Paper leaked last week argues that a “lethal operation” is lawful if it has “the consent of the host nation’s government” or if it is determined that the government is “unable or unwilling to suppress the threat posed”—in other words, regardless of the attitude of the government of the targeted country.
After coming to power, Obama vastly expanded drone killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than 2,300 people have been killed in Pakistan alone, including at least nine more in an attack on Friday. According to the Paksitani government, some 80 percent of these victims have been civilians.
Increasingly, however, the US sees drone assassination as a central tool for military action all over the world. It is a means of targeting forces that for one reason or another come into conflict with US-backed governments, without necessarily committing US military troops. The “war on terror” is merely the pretext for this immense expansion of American militarism.
The Journal notes that there have been disputes within the administration over extending the attacks to the Al Qaeda-linked group in the Maghreb “because of disagreements about the extent to which the group directly threatens the US and is plotting attacks against American targets.”
In fact, many Al Qaeda-linked forced were allied with the US in the bloody war to oust and kill Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, while similar groups are playing a central role in the civil war that has been stoked up by the US in Syria.
In general, northern Africa is increasingly seen as a central geopolitical region, with significant supplies of natural gas and other strategic resources. It is also a major locus of conflict between the United States and China.
Under Obama, there has been a significant expansion of the military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), along with proposals to set up permanent bases on the continent. As part of the Mali operation, US Special Forces have been sent to Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Togo and Ghana.
The growing reliance of US imperialism on CIA and military assassinations has fueled calls from sections of the political establishment to more securely institutionalize the practice and lend it a fig leaf of legality. These proposals have been raised more prominently in the aftermath of the leak last week of the White Paper on assassinating US citizens.
The arguments of the administration that it can kill citizens without any due process have the most far-reaching implications for democratic rights, essentially investing unlimited power in the executive branch and the military-intelligence apparatus.
Yet within the political establishment and media, there have been virtually no calls for ending the program or holding to account those who originated it and oversee it. A Senate confirmation hearing last week for John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and his pick to head the CIA, made clear the bipartisan support for the assassination program, which Brennan has directed. Not one senator declared he would vote against Brennan, who is expected to be easily confirmed, perhaps as early as this week.
Criticisms of presidential assassinations of US citizens have been limited to tactical and procedural issues. Some members of Congress and commentators, taking their cue from the New York Times editorial page, are pushing for the setting up of a secret court to provide a pretense of judicial oversight and a pseudo-legal stamp of approval for state murder.
An article in the New York Times on Saturday (“Debating a Court to Vet Drone Strikes”) reports that “in response to broad dissatisfaction with the hidden bureaucracy directing lethal drone strikes, there is an interest in applying the model of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court—created by Congress so that surveillance had to be justified to a federal judge—to the targeted killing of suspected terrorists, or at least of American suspects.”
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the intelligence committee, supported the proposal at the Brennan confirmation hearing. Brennan himself suggested that it was “worthy of discussion,” and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has indicated that he supports the proposal as well.
Referring to several “legal scholars and terrorism experts,” the Times writes, “With the war in Afghanistan winding down, Al Qaeda fragmenting into hard-to-read offshoots and the 2001 terrorist attacks receding into the past, they said, it is time to consider how to forge a new, trustworthy and transparent system to govern lethal counterterrorism operations.”
The newspaper goes on to note that “with Al Qaeda’s core in Pakistan hugely diminished and Osama bin Laden dead” the targets of assassination are now “a mixed bag of midlevel militants and foot soldiers whose focus is often more on the Pakistani or Yemeni authorities than on the United States.” This is an inadvertent admission that the main target of drone assassinations is not Al Qaeda operatives, but rather anyone who seeks to fight US occupation of their country or repressive regimes that do the bidding of Washington.
The Times article also implicitly exposes the claim that a secret drone assassination court would lead to greater “transparency” and square the assassination program with constitutional norms. It notes that the model for such a new court, the existing FISA court, operates in complete secrecy and approves every surveillance request from the government. The newspaper writes: “In 2011, according to the most recent statistics, the court approved 1,745 orders for electronic surveillance or physical searches, rejecting none outright but altering 30.”
If it were established, any such court for assassination would not represent a “check” on the program, but rather a means of more securely embedding state-sanctioned killing in the institutions of the government.