A 'Macabre' Process: Nominating Terrorists To Nation's 'Kill List'

May 29, 2012
Originally published on May 29, 2012 7:45 pm

One of the day's most-discussed stories has to be The New York Times' report headlined "Secret 'Kill List' Proves A Test Of Obama's Principles And Will."

It's a long, detailed look at how the president has "placed himself at the helm of a top secret 'nominations' process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical."

Obama himself, the Times' Joe Becker and Scott Shane report, approves "every new name on an expanding 'kill list,' poring over terrorist suspects' biographies on what one official calls the macabre 'baseball cards' of an unconventional war." Those who end up on the list become targets of potential drone strikes.

This afternoon, All Things Considered host Melissa Block asked Shane what surprised him most among the things he and Becker discovered.

For Shane, it was the Defense Department's "rather open process by which they nominate" suspects to that kill list. As he and Becker wrote:

"It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government's sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects' biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die."

It is "this strange, secret trial in a way," Shane told Melissa.

The nominees get sent to the White House, where the president and his top advisers hold "Terror Tuesday" meetings to go over the list and related topics. If, when it comes time to fire a missile at one of the suspects and it appears there might be family members or other civilians nearby, Obama "has reserved to himself the final moral calculation," the Times reports.

More from Melissa's conversation with Shane is due on All Things Considered later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

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At the White House, they call it Terror Tuesday. Each week, President Obama meets in the Situation Room with two dozen national security officials to go over names and photos of terrorism suspects. And it's ultimately the president who decides which suspects will be added to what's called the kill list. The process is detailed in a lengthy story in today's New York Times written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane. And Scott Shane joins me in studio to talk about it. Scott, welcome.

SCOTT SHANE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Let's talk about that process. This is described as being macabre baseball cards that the White House is considering in terms of whom they'll target. How does it work?

SHANE: Yes. One person compared it to baseball cards. It's sort of a creepy analogy, but these are PowerPoint slides of suspected terrorists - al-Qaida members - who are being considered in what's called a nomination process. The Pentagon's part on this is quite open, with a bunch of agencies on video link, people talking in kind of security video teleconference, why we think this guy is al-Qaida, why we think he's a threat, why he's dangerous, why should he be put on the kill list, and other agencies having an opportunity to challenge that.

BLOCK: And then, according to your reporting, ultimately it is President Obama who makes the final decision; says yes, this person is added to the kill list.

SHANE: That's right. Those nominations both from the Pentagon process and from a separate process at the CIA, get funneled to the White House. They go to John Brennan, who is the president's counterterrorism advisor, and ultimately to the president.

BLOCK: And when you describe the decision by President Obama that he wants to be the one to decide, yes, this person will be added to the kill list. What's the significance of that and how does it differ, if it does, from the practice of his predecessor, President George Bush?

SHANE: Well, we were told that President Bush usually did not get involved before someone was put on the kill list or before an operation, although he was very interested in being briefed in great detail after strikes and certainly took a great interest in them.

President Obama has greatly escalated the drone shots, first in Pakistan and then sort of expanded into Yemen and, as he expanded it, he apparently decided that he wanted to take some personal responsibility for these decisions, both on a kind of moral basis, but also because this is an extremely volatile program, as we have seen in Pakistan. It sets people off, not only on the grounds of, you know, people getting killed, sometimes, inadvertently, civilians getting killed, but also because it seems like a fairly flagrant violation of sovereignty and that's what upsets many people in Pakistan.

BLOCK: There were a number of White House officials, past and present, who were willing to go on the record on this subject. Newsweek also just published an excerpt of a book coming out on a similar theme. Does this seem to you to be playing into a political calculation of portraying a commander-in-chief who is steely with resolve and tough on national security issues?

SHANE: I think that's an interesting question. I mean, for the Times, this was actually part of a series that we're doing with a loose connection to the election in the sense that this is a series that assesses Obama's record in office in his first term. So I suppose there is that political connection.

We found that, while most people give the president very high marks for really decimating al-Qaida in Pakistan and, to some degree, in Yemen, that there are a lot of questions that worry not only people outside the government, but people inside the government.

Sort of, first of all, the drones having become a radicalizing factor in themselves and then there's also, I think, a lot of concern at the White House, at the State Department, at the intelligence agencies, over - when do you stop? You know, you can kind of get lower and lower on the totem pole. Where do you say, in a country like Pakistan, you know what? We've killed all the important guys and we're going to stop for a while. And what is the effect of that?

And, finally, what example - some people are beginning to worry about what example are we setting for the rest of the world since we're the ones who pioneered this extraordinary military capability. If the Russians in Chechnya or the Chinese with the Uighurs were to use drones to, say, cross a border and take out people they perceived as an enemy, you know, what would our stance be? And so I think there are people very much in the inside of the Obama Administration, as well as outside, who are worrying about those issues now.

BLOCK: Scott Shane, thanks very much.

SHANE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Scott Shane is national security correspondent with the New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.