The hunting and killing of particular individuals via drone has been a poorly closeted secret for many years now. Not anymore: John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, just went on the record, admitting targeted robot killing is official US policy.
The statement, part of a broad speech on the ethics and "transparency" of America's drone program, included this one crucial line: "the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists." That's it. This means going after specific people from a secret kill list, rather than just providing the kind of aerial support of, say a bomber or other military airship.
Again—nothing surprising here. Everyone knew this.
But to not only confirm targeted drone attacks—rather declaring it with confidence—is a significant signal. Before today, targeted killing was known but always danced around, suggesting there was something dubious to the program, or something worth suppressing. Something unseemly. And while this might still be the case in actuality, the feds sure don't think so—they're entirely onboard, and willing to say, flat out, that this is the future of killing. Putting a human's name on a list—US citizen or otherwise—and then killing them from a missile he never saw coming is the new normal.
Although Brennan didn't dictate much more than the fact that the government is "confident" in a target's culpability in something (phew!), much of the details have been spelled out elsewhere—most recently in Rolling Stone's terrific overview of UAV warfare:
The [target] cable usually contains a list of 30 people targeted for death. Occasionally, the memos are rejected for not containing enough information. More often, [former chief counsel at the CIA John] Rizzo would approve the kill, writing the word "concurred" following the phrase, "Therefore we request approval for targeting for lethal operation." In his six years as chief counsel, Rizzo says, he signed off on about one kill list per month.
Don't expect Brennan (or anyone of his cadre) to spill nitty gritty like this—the rationale behind who gets targeted and why is still buried beneath a pile of CIA letterhead and an infinite kaleidoscope of DC lawyers. That's staying secret. But today is still a profound statement: we now officially live in a society that embraces crossing people off a list via robot. Drones may be the least-awful, most-efficient, at times dazzlingly sophisticated way to run a war. But whatever your thoughts on the ethics of what may or may not be drone assassination, we're, on the record, living in a new period of how we kill. And we need to spend time thinking about it.