When Barack Obama ordered the closing of Gitmo and began pressing for criminal trials for captured terrorists, many of us assumed that the military and intelligence personnel on the front lines of the war would simply begin to kill terrorists rather than capture them. After all, a dead terrorist may not give us the critical intel we need to stop attacks, but arresting them and reading them Miranda rights wouldn’t, either — and would be more likely to expose critical secrets in the war. The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Obama administration has reached the same conclusion, and for the same reasons:
When a window of opportunity opened to strike the leader of al-Qaeda in East Africa last September, U.S. Special Operations forces prepared several options. They could obliterate his vehicle with an airstrike as he drove through southern Somalia. Or they could fire from helicopters that could land at the scene to confirm the kill. Or they could try to take him alive.
The White House authorized the second option. On the morning of Sept. 14, helicopters flying from a U.S. ship off the Somali coast blew up a car carrying Saleh Ali Nabhan. While several hovered overhead, one set down long enough for troops to scoop up enough of the remains for DNA verification. Moments later, the helicopters were headed back to the ship.
The strike was considered a major success, according to senior administration and military officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation and other sensitive matters. But the opportunity to interrogate one of the most wanted U.S. terrorism targets was gone forever.
This was no isolated decision. The Post reports that “a number” of similar choices have been made since Obama took control of the war on terror. Instead of attempting to get intel and unravel future attacks and present networks, the White House has simply chosen to kill terrorists as they present themselves.
And the reason that the “just shoot the bastard” impulse has grown greater in the Obama administration is the same reason it started in the Bush administration — controversy over detention and adjudication:
One problem identified by those within and outside the government is the question of where to take captives apprehended outside established war zones and cooperating countries. “We’ve been trying to decide this for over a year,” the senior military officer said. “When you don’t have a detention policy or a set of facilities,” he said, operational decisions become more difficult.
The administration has pledged to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Congress has resisted moving any of the about 190 detainees remaining there, let alone terrorism suspects who have been recently captured, to this country. All of the CIA’s former “black site” prisons have been shut down, and a U.S. official involved in operations planning confirmed that the agency has no terrorism suspects in its custody. Although the CIA retains the right to briefly retain terrorism suspects, any detainees would be quickly transferred to a military prison or an allied government with jurisdiction over the case, the official said [emphasis mine — Ed].
In other words, rendition remains an option, but not Gitmo or CIA detention. For a while, we took them to Bagram, but the US has pledged to turn Bagram back to the Afghanis at the end of next year. We have almost 800 detainees in Bagram, some of whom were captured elsewhere. Karzai no longer allows us to do that, though, which means that anyone captured will have to get sent to a regular military prison, transferred to our criminal-justice system, given to another country with some interest in the detainee, or released altogether. Since capturing a prisoner entails a lot of risk to the personnel that attempt the mission, the US has increasing opted to shoot from a distance and eliminate all of the other headaches.
What do we lose in this transaction? With a network leader like Nabhan, we lose the ability to get information on a wide range of important issues, like funding, network nodes, communications techniques, and of course plots in the pipeline. Killing Nabhan makes it difficult for AQ to operate, but capturing and interrogating Nabhan would have put us in AQ’s OODA loop for a short but critical period of time, which would have led us to more terrorists and a better picture of AQ’s operations.
We could restore the ability to get that kind of intel if we just admitted we need Gitmo to remain open. The goal in the war on terror is to dismantle the al-Qaeda network and stamp out the ability of radical Islamists to conduct major terrorist operations against the US and our allies, not to kill terrorists one at a time and then try to go after their replacements.
Update: Of course, this policy sets up some interesting questions. Is it more humane to house detainees at Gitmo than to kill them outright, the direct result of the decision to close detention centers like Gitmo? What about the collateral damage done when killing terrorists rather than capturing them? Is the loss of life among civilians worth the elimination of the detention option? If Obama and his allies are so concerned about due process that they want to reject the military commission system that Congress has authorized three times now, what kind of due process comes at the end of a Hellfire missile aimed at a target who hasn’t had an opportunity to issue a habeas corpus demand?