More on history… In a commentary on Greg Miller‘s Washington Post article on the ‘disposition matrix‘ now used by the Obama administration to further its targeted killing programme, Ian Shaw suggests that this reveals ‘the changing face of state violence: the decentralization of targeted killings across the globe and the simultaneous centralization of state power in the executive branch of government.’
Even before the process was streamlined by the introduction of the matrix, Jo Becker and Scott Shane reporting for the New York Times described the President’s ‘immersion’ in the process, which they too thought ‘unprecedented’:
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.
This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.
The video conferences are run by the Pentagon… [and] a parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan.
The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.
John Whitehead also saw this as a dramatic – and ominous – departure: ‘Should we fail to recognize and rectify the danger in allowing a single individual to declare himself the exception to the rule of law and assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner, we will have no one else to blame when we plunge once and for all into the abyss that is tyranny.’
Claims like these not only resonate with Giorgio Agamben‘s mapping of the space of exception; they also intersect with the debate over the ‘unitary executive’ that was renewed (and radicalised) during the Bush administration.
But if we narrow the focus there is in fact an historical precedent for what Becker and Shane called the ‘Terror Tuesday’ meetings and the close control exerted by the executive over air strikes – and this also took place on a Tuesday.
During the Vietnam War President Lyndon Johnson personally decided targets for the ‘Rolling Thunder’ campaign of air strikes againt North Vietnam, famously boasting that ‘they can’t even bomb an outhouse without my approval.’
Targets were first proposed by the Air Force and submitted to the Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command (CINPAC), whose office reviewed and forwarded a target list to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who in turn reviewed and forwarded their revised list to the Pentagon. There officials analysed the targets in relation to the probable impact of a strike and the likelihood of civilian casualties, and the Secretary of Defense coordinated the modified list with the Secretary of State. By this stage the folder for each numbered target had been reduced to a sheet of paper with just four columns: military advantage; risk to US aircraft and crew; estimated civilian casualties; and danger to third-country nationals (Russian and Chinese advisers).
The final target list was decided during the President’s Tuesday luncheon at the White House. This was not a casual affair; it followed a meeting of the National Security Council, and those attending the luncheon – the Secretaries of State and Defense, the President’s special assistant for national security affairs, and (significantly) the President’s press secretary – were briefed before grading each target. Their grades were combined and averaged and then reviewed by the President who made the final selection. His decision was delivered to the NSC in the evening and transmitted to CINCPAC through the Joint Chiefs for immediate execution. The instructions included not only the number of sorties to be conducted against each target but also in the early stages of the campaign the timing of the attacks and the ordnance to be used.
Remarkably, no military officers were invited to the Tuesday luncheon until October 1967, and in at least in the first phase of Rolling Thunder the political consistently trumped the military. As targets worked their way up the command hierarchy to Washington, their priority order was reversed; the bomb line slowly advanced northward as strikes worked their way up from the bottom of the strategic list. In addition to selecting targets, Johnson stipulated strict Rules of Engagement – so stringent that one airman described them as ‘rules of defeat’ – that prohibited air strikes within 30 miles of the Chinese border, 30 miles from the centre of Hanoi and 10 miles from the centre of Haiphong, and imposed a complex, constantly changing web of regulation whose details had to be incorporated into every day’s operational order.
The paragraphs above are culled from my ‘Lines of descent’ (DOWNLOADS tab) and they describe an ideal-typical sequence of decision-making, but the most detailed published account is David Humphreys, ‘On the Tuesday Lunch at the Johnson White House: a preliminary assessment’, Diplomatic History 8 (1984) 81-101; see also David Barrett, ‘Doing “Tuesday Lunch” at Lyndon Johnson’s White House: new archival evidence on decision-making’, PS: Political science and politics 24 (4) (1991) pp. 676-9, Kevin Mulcahy, ‘Rethinking Groupthink: Walt Rostow and the National Security advisory processin the Johnson administration’, Presidential Studies Quarterly 25 (1995) 237-50, and Johanna Kephart, ‘Presidential decision-making and war: testing the evolution model’, MA thesis, Georgetown University (2010) here (especially pp. 8-27).
Pakistan is not Vietnam, of course, and there are obvious differences between the two campaigns – as well as remarkable ‘lines of descent’ – but the role of the sovereign in asserting ‘the right to take life or let live’ is a grim constant.
I don’t like Tuesdays: Some of you will remember the Boomtown Rats song ‘I don’t like Mondays’ written by Bob Geldorf after a shooting at a school playground in San Diego; the shooter, a 16-year old girl, explained: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens them up.”