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Obama's Disposition Matrix decides who lives or dies

Lest anyone thinks that when the US and Britain withdraw troops from Afghanistan, that will end their military involvement, think again. The United States has a new doctrine of permanent war, using hi-tech remote weaponry like the dreaded drone.

The Obama administration has institutionalised the use of targeted killing by armed drones. In fact, the drone is Obama’s weapon of choice. Under his presidency, drones are killing people at seven times the rate under the previous Bush administration.

In the Matrix films, humans struggled against the machine. In the Disposition Matrix, the US government deploys machines to assassinate people on a hit list that is added to daily. And, deciding who will live and die is the man in the Oval Office himself, president Obama.

Except for those on the hit list in Pakistan. Here, life-and-death decisions are taken by the Central Intelligence Agency, which has abandoned spying to become a subsidiary of Murder Inc, whose headquarters is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington, DC 20500, tel (202) 456-2121.

The Disposition Matrix is a database that officials describe as a "next-generation capture/kill list". But it is more than that, creating a blueprint for tracking, capturing, rendering and especially killing terrorism suspects. Thus the use of the term “disposition”.

Paul R. Pillar, the former deputy director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre, has stated that "we are looking at something that is potentially indefinite". And certainly illegal, within the framework of both the US constitution and international law.

There is no “due process”, no opportunity to answer charges. The last thing a victim hears is the sound of a missile arriving, shortly after being fired by an unmanned drone. The trigger is pulled in a US military base somewhere else.

A computer game this is not, however. Some estimates suggest that more people have been killed by US drones than the 3,000 plus who perished when the Twin Towers were brought down in 2001. Many of the victims are bystanders, family members or just people at a gathering wrongly identified as would-be terrorists.

According to Daniel Klaidman in his book, Kill or Capture, “the inability to detain terror suspects was creating perverse incentives that favoured killing or releasing suspected terrorists over capturing them."  That is why Osama bin Laden was executed as he was.
At the heart of the Disposition Matrix is Obama adviser John Brennan, who came to the job from the CIA. He is, the New York Times reported, the "priest whose blessing has become indispensable" to Obama. Last April, he publicly defended the policy of targeted killing. 

Under George W. Bush, Brennan served as top aide to CIA director George Tenet, where he defended the administration's use of extraordinary rendition and “enhanced interrogation”, aka torture.
Brennan is said to wield enormous power in shaping decisions on “kill” lists and the allocation of armed drones. The review process also allows the killing of individuals whose identities are unknown. Americans may also be listed as targets. Indeed, one of the victims was US citizen Anwar al-Aulaqi.  
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has condemned the Disposition Matrix database, stating that "anyone who thought US targeted killing outside of armed conflict was a narrow, emergency-based exception to the requirement of due process before a death sentence is being proven conclusively wrong.” It has launched a legal challenge, claiming that the policy is unconstitutional.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism, Ben Emmerson and Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, have described some American drone attacks as "war crimes".

That they certainly are. Calling for an end to the policy of permanent war, Washington Post columnist  Fareed Zakaria cited a warning from James Madison, father of the US constitution:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes ... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Over two centuries years later, Madison’s words should come home to haunt Obama as he presides over the death of the very same US constitution. 

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
7 December 2012

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