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How Obama Maintains His Secret ‘Kill List’

May 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Drone strikes on militant targets in Yemen are on the rise, as are targeted killings of insurgents there and elsewhere. But who has the final say on the so-called kill list of terrorists slated to be killed or captured? Ray Suarez introduces an excerpt from a new "Frontline" then speaks with New York Times reporter Scott Shane.

MARGARET WARNER: Next, the stepped-up drone war against al-Qaida, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent years, Yemen has emerged as the hottest front in the war against al-Qaida.

Tonight’s edition of “Frontline” travels to the heart of the Arabian Peninsula nation.

Guardian journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, reporting for “Frontline,” gained rare access to militant strongholds. He visited several towns and met with insurgent leaders and fighters.

Here is an excerpt.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD, The Guardian: This, in a way, is the heartland of al-Qaida or Ansar Al-Sharia in Yemen. This is where they have set up base five years ago. It is here in the rugged mountains of Shabwa where the leadership of al-Qaida are based.

NARRATOR: This was the home of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born preacher killed last year in a U.S. drone attack.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Allegedly, it out of here where they kind of masterminded all their terror plots.

NARRATOR: The approach to the town of Azan was heavily guarded by al-Qaida fighters.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Azan is their fortress.

When you reach Azan, you feel it’s more sinister then Jaar. The town is more desolate, more empty, heavily guarded. They are very, very paranoid, far more than in Jaar. I had many conversations with judges, clerics in Azan, and they wouldn’t let us film, because no one was allowed to be filmed, to even have his voice recorded by the camera. No one was allowed to carry a cell phone.

NARRATOR: Ghaith was shown the site of a U.S. drone strike.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: These are the spots where the son of the American preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed.

NARRATOR: The 16-year-old son of the al-Qaida leader was a U.S. citizen.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: His son and eight of his friends were sitting in this place having diner, and they were targeted by one rocket here, another rocket there, if you see this big circle, targeted them, and then another rocket beyond this area.

They say it an American-targeted killing for an American citizen, of course.

NARRATOR: It was the time for afternoon prayers. The streets were empty. At this checkpoint, Ghaith discovered one gunman was from Somalia and another from Afghanistan. Inside this booth, by the side of the road, recruits were distributing al-Qaida newsletters.

GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: This isn’t — this kind of very, very isolated region, yet here’s this organization have devoted a part of out resources to a media wing of the organization. It’s a small office, but it’s very sophisticated. That’s why they are very, if you want to say, successful in their existence.

NARRATOR: They also gave away DVDs, including one called “The Survivors,” about commanders who survived drone attacks. Surviving or being killed in a U.S. drone strike is seen as a badge of honor here.

RAY SUAREZ: Drone strikes on militant targets in Yemen are on the rise, as are targeted killings of insurgents there and elsewhere. But who has the final say on the makeup of the so-called kill list, the terrorists slated to be killed or captured?

That was the subject of a New York Times article today.

And we’re joined now by Scott Shane, one of the reporters on the story.

And, Scott, at the very outset of your story, it’s Yemen, which we have just seen one of the sites of a U.S. drone strike, that pulls President Obama into closer involvement with the planning of the use of drones, isn’t it?

SCOTT SHANE, The New York Times: That’s right.

As you know, the Bush administration stepped up drone strikes in Pakistan in the last six months or so of his presidency in the second half of 2008. But President Obama not only greatly escalated the strikes in Pakistan in 2009-2010, and they dropped off a bit in ’11 and ’12, but there’s still quite a few strikes in Pakistan.

But President Obama began strikes in Yemen at the end of 2009, and they have been stepped up considerably recently as al-Qaida has seized more territory in Yemen.

RAY SUAREZ: Besides escalating the number of strikes and moving them to Yemen as well, has the process changed from the Bush days?


We were very interested to discover that President Obama deliberately took a very central role in this program. He insisted on reviewing names that were going to be named to the so-called kill or capture list. And he has approved all strikes outside Pakistan and many of the more riskier, complex strikes inside Pakistan since he became president.

He wanted to — instead of wanting deniability and wanting to keep at a distance from this lethal program, he actually wanted to be very much part of it.

RAY SUAREZ: You describe at length the interest, the responsibility he’s taken for the program. If you could, give us a quick tour of the process. Who’s involved? How do they narrow down the list of possible targets to those that actually are hunted by the drones?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, there’s one process for the CIA in Pakistan. That is pretty much within the agency at CIA. And it’s quite secretive. Then there’s a separate process run by the Pentagon for Yemen and to a much lesser degree Somalia.

And that is a much more open process. It is a classified process, it’s secret, but they invite input from dozens of officials at other agencies, all of whom get together in a video teleconference and discuss what they call the nominations.

People are nominated to this list, and they look at the picture and biography of a suspected terrorist. Somebody says, this is who this guy is and this is why we think he qualifies for the kill list. Others — we’re told it can be a contentious process. Others can say, why are you calling him a facilitator of al-Qaida? What does it take to be a facilitator of al-Qaida? If you deliver food to a compound where al-Qaida fighters are, does that make you part of their group?

That kind of thing — and it can be a contentious process that can require multiple meetings to put one name on the list.

RAY SUAREZ: It was perhaps inevitable, with such a largest escalation in the use of drones, that unintended targets would be hit, people would be killed that the U.S. didn’t want. What was the president’s reaction as far as you have been able to establish in your reporting, to the killing of civilians who were not intended?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, one point that the administration makes is that there is a — while there’s a dispute over the extent of civilian casualties in the drone strikes, everyone pretty much agrees that they are far, far smaller than the casualties if there were a conventional war, say we invaded Pakistan, we invaded Yemen, as we did Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to hunt down the terrorists and kill them, so that the numbers are relatively small compared to a conventional war.

But the president apparently reacted quite strongly to a bad strike, an errant strike in Pakistan very early in the first days of his presidency, and has kept pressing the agencies involved to minimize civilian casualties.

But there’s also been some dispute over the way civilian casualties are counted. The CIA often counts able-bodied males, military-age males who are killed in strikes as militants, unless they have concrete evidence to sort of prove them innocent.

And some folks at the State Department and elsewhere have questioned that kind of a process.

RAY SUAREZ: So if you’re a man who is killed in Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghan border or in the field in Yemen, you’re considered a legitimate target whether you’re a known terrorist or not?

SCOTT SHANE: That’s right.

In Pakistan, they have what they call signature strikes, where the drones are looking for the signature of a terrorist compound, a bomb-making factory, that kind of thing, as opposed to an individual. And they have introduced in Yemen a new kind of strike which also allows them to take a shot at someone whose name they don’t know, as long as there’s evidence that that person is a high-level terrorist posing a threat to the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Has it — has the controversy over arresting people and trying them, very quickly, made it easier, simply, to kill them?

SCOTT SHANE: That is certainly something that critics raise, that the Obama administration prefers to avoid the messy controversies over detention and interrogation that the Bush — and trial that the Bush administration went through, to — you know, just to get rid of terrorists the easy way, so to speak.

Administration officials, I must say, deny that. They say it’s virtually impossible to capture people in these rugged tribal areas of Yemen and Pakistan, and that they do prefer to capture terrorists when they can.

RAY SUAREZ: Scott Shane of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

SCOTT SHANE: Thanks for having me.