The Next President Won't Ask Permission to Kill

When you can rain death from the sky and outsource war to civilian contractors, you don't worry about Congress. 

Getty Images / John Moore

The power of the president of the United States isn’t limitless when it comes to foreign policy, but it’s close. Congress controls budgets and courts can block executive overreach, but those are reactions, not constraints. In a sense, the president has first-strike capability and that fact has substantively changed the job over the course of the last decade. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton would be able to start a land war in Asia without public support, but — make no mistake — they could absolutely go to battle.

Two trends – each of which have come to define the modern U.S. military – have increased the already awesome powers of the executive branch. The first is the military’s heavy reliance on private contractors to perform jobs and services that once would have been carried out by U.S. troops. The second is the institutionalization of drones to carry about targeted and semi-targeted killings both in active war zones and outside them. Contractors allow a president to expand a war abroad while maintaining a deceptively low number of “boots on the ground,” and the emergence of drone technology has freed the U.S. to kill suspected enemies virtually anywhere in the world, with minimal oversight or outcry.

Both drones and contractors have been in the news recently. One week ago, the Obama administration released its so-called “drone playbook” in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the ACLU. The playbook – officially known as the “Presidential Policy Guidance” – governs how and when the U.S. government can strike targets outside of areas of active hostilities. And just this week, the Daily Beast reported that private intelligence firm Six3 Intelligence Solutions won a $10 million award to provide intelligence analysis to the Department of Defense in several countries, including in Syria.

Erik Prince, chairman of the Prince Group, LLC and Blackwater USA, is sworn in during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

Getty Images / Mark Wilson

Of the many legacies of the George W. Bush years and the Iraq War, one of the least appreciated is the large-scale outsourcing operation Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld oversaw as he took the country to war. Rumsfeld had long been a proponent of privatizing state-sponsored violence, though Vice President Dick Cheney became that movement’s poster child because of his close ties to the mega-contractor Halliburton.

The most notorious contractor of the Iraq war was Blackwater, the mercenary army tasked with guarding U.S. diplomats and State Department officials while in-country. When Blackwater mercs opened fire in Nissour Square in September 2007, they killed 17 Iraqis and committed one of the worst single-incident war crimes of the entire occupation. Beyond high-profile private armies like Blackwater, contractors have become a permanent facet at almost every level of the military – from logistics, to repair, to providing services like keeping troops fed and in clean uniforms. As Micah Zenko noted in Foreign Policy last May, contractors in Afghanistan outnumber U.S. troops by 3-to-1. At the time, there were about double the number of contractors as there were troops in Iraq. President Obama can then tell the country that there are 9,800 troops in Afghanistan and roughly 5,000 in Iraq, currently, but those numbers don’t take contractors into account, so the actual U.S. footprint is far larger than the public realizes.

It’s not just the military, either. The intelligence community relies heavily on contractors, the most famous being Edward Snowden. Snowden worked at an NSA station in Hawaii, but private intel groups often work on the front lines with U.S. soldiers, often with little public debate. The recent announcement that Six3 would be in Syria, for instance, would mark the first time that the public was notified about private intelligence contractors operating in Syria. (The DoD appears to be walking back the announcement, saying instead that the work will be done in Kosovo – which is an odd mistake to make.)

If Six3 will in fact be operating in Syria, the role they will play isn’t entirely clear, but the Daily Beast reports that Six3 “specializes in biometrics and identity intelligence—figuring out who people really are—as well as cyber and reconnaissance.” Whether Six3 is in Syria or not, the larger trend still holds – that the military and intelligence community rely heavily on contractors, and the result – whether by design or not – is that the U.S. public gets a distorted view of just how expansive the U.S. operations abroad really are.

If Bush II will be remembered for privatization, Obama will be remembered for his use of drones. His policy of killing suspected enemies using drones is a massively significant part of his legacy. Though he initially campaigned on the promise of running the “most transparent administration” in history, President Obama and his military advisors have operated almost entirely in the shadows when it comes to the drone programs. The recent release of the “playbook” came only after years of litigation and foot-dragging.

Obama laid out the new rules in a speech at the National Defense University in 2013, saying that for a strike to be carried out “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” He also insisted, despite all available evidence, that the U.S. preference was to capture suspected terrorists when possible rather than killing them. The playbook obtained by the ACLU offers some additional clarity on Obama’s 2013 remarks, but still leaves many questions unanswered.

A pilot's heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission.

Getty Images / Ethan Miller

And as Marcy Wheeler writes at The New Republic, the document is at least as significant for the loopholes it contains as for any constraints it puts on the president’s kill team. “The PPG lays out certain principles, but doesn’t match them with the procedures that would actually accomplish the stated policies,” Wheeler writes. “There are many ways to bypass the letter and, even more so, the intent of the guidelines.

Between the freedom that contractors give the president to undercount the number of U.S. forces abroad, and the intoxicating power drones provide – an ability to kill suspected enemies with no risk to U.S. troops – the next president will have powerful tools at their disposal to use, all largely unchecked. That means that while Obama was the first U.S. president to be at war for the entirety of both terms, he’s unlikely to be the last.

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