How Does the Government Decide When to Kill a Terrorist?
Surprise, the plan is mostly secret
The White House and Pentagon are less than forthcoming about how they decide to send drones or commandos to kill or capture terrorists.
In March 2011, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Historical Research Branch published a report called “Intelligence and the Challenge of High Value Targets.” The U.S. Air Force’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency — now the Twenty-Fifth Air Force — included notes from the study in its annual historical review the same year.
War Is Boring obtained a heavily redacted copy of the Air Force history through the Freedom of Information Act. Censors almost completely excised the chapter on so-called “High Value Targets,” or simply HVTs — important leaders and other significant terrorists such as the late Osama Bin Laden.
But they left in the following flow chart about how decision makers might figure out exactly who they want to target and why.
The framework goes through the who, what, where, when and why of choosing an enemy to go after. The remaining portions of the section offer some additional details about the theory:
In the second step in this framework process, target selection, a senior commander or the President, selects who is to be captured or killed based on the desired outcome and if the benefits outweigh the risks involved. [Nearly seven full lines redacted]
Lastly, assessment examines the desired outcomes, operational costs, collateral damage and unintended consequences of the take-down of the target. This analysis is vital to ensure that the removal of the [Redacted] and [Redacted].
These steps highlight a number of sensible and relatively unsurprising points to consider when deciding whether to kill someone. But the existence of the study suggests there might still be a debate of sorts going on inside the Pentagon about the process.
When we asked DIA about the study’s origins and whether it had been applied to any actual operations, this was their response:
DIA did not produce the study. The study you mention was independently prepared for the DIA’s Historical Research Support Branch in 2011 under [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s] Lessons Learned Awareness Program. The information and views expressed in the study are those of the author and do not represent those of DIA, DOD or ODNI. The study looks at concepts of identifying, tracking and neutralizing HVTs historically and discusses the role of intelligence in the process.
The framework illustration you mention is not a DIA product; it was created by the author. It is a notional decision matrix that could be applicable to HVT operations and is based upon the author’s research.
The study is not a policy document; it is a study on the topic of intelligence support in HVT operations. It captures the historical perspective and challenges faced in such operations based upon the author’s research.
Still, intelligence officials did ask for the study in an era of drone strikes and commando raids around the world to scoop up or knock out terrorists and militants. As a product of a lessons learned program, it’s unlikely that the individuals reading the report were not interested in possibly applying its methodology for real.
After getting this document, we put in another FOIA request to ODNI for any other documents that might have come out of the Lessons Learned Awareness Program this year. They told us they couldn’t find any.