Opinion | The Moral Cost of Killing Our Enemies in Secret

Death came via teddy bear. Specifically, a six-foot-tall plush panda bear, special ordered in 2017 by a Colombian gang leader known as Inglaterra. His girlfriend’s birthday was coming up; perhaps he wanted to surprise her with it. But the Colombian military got word of the order and tracked the bear to a luxurious farm near the Venezuelan border.

Inglaterra had been traveling by mule, draped in jewels and gold, wearing designer watches, rarely staying anywhere for more than a single night. When he arrived at the farm, 40 Colombian commandos quickly followed. Surprise.

I’d first heard the story when I was researching a novel about America’s long-running assistance with targeted killings in Colombia and a friend sent me a Colombian newspaper link. He asked me if I detected the hidden hand of America anywhere in Inglaterra’s death.

I thought of that story again this month, first when it was reported that the United States was helping Ukraine kill Russian generals, and again when The Times reported that the troops President Biden had ordered back into Somalia would help maintain an assassination program targeting a small cadre of Somali leaders. In both cases many details remain unclear, with much of the public knowledge coming from anonymous officials feeding information to newspapers rather than a public rollout of a new U.S. foreign policy.

One of the many strange things about being an American citizen these days is that there’s a whole lot of killing done in our name that our government deliberately keeps secret. Friends of mine, back from Iraq or Afghanistan, used to respond to people asking the inappropriate question veterans always get, “Did you kill anyone?” with the sharp-elbowed response, “If I did, you paid me to do it — ” a rough reminder of the link between the military and the citizens they represent. But back then, the actions of our military were much more visible. What does it mean to be a citizen of a state that kills for you but doesn’t tell you about it? Are you still responsible?

When I was a public affairs officer in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009, back during the era of massive antiwar protests, an activist group taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times to attack the credibility of a U.S. general led to spirited debates about everything from the morality of the war to the wisdom of its strategy. The main efforts of the American military in this period were conducted in the open, and my job entailed courting journalists to embed with our units to see what they were doing.

This relative openness meant the war provoked messy debate, political grandstanding, lies and hypocrisy and ill-informed analysis on cable news, and other byproducts of democracy. It also meant that the George W. Bush administration had to explain and defend its policies, which meant that I knew what we were supposed to be fighting for, what success was meant to look like, and why we were there. It meant political pressure brought to bear on U.S. policymaking to keep it tethered to the will of the American people.

But the nature of war shifted, for political and military reasons. One way of describing the change is to look at the pace of American Special Operations. In the spring of 2004 the Joint Special Operations Command was conducting about six operations a month in Iraq. By the summer of 2006 they were doing 300. This didn’t happen by sending the Navy SEALs to the gym to work on their run time, but by rehauling the whole process of finding targets, fixing them in place, finishing them, exploiting and analyzing the intelligence collected, and then disseminating that intelligence to the agencies and commands able to most rapidly act on it. It was this capability that former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates claimed in 2011 fused “intelligence and operations in a way that just, I think, is unique in anybody’s history.”

When Americans think about the killing we do overseas, we often think about the mechanism. A drone delivering a bomb strikes us as a bit creepy. A member of the Navy SEALs bursting into a bad guy’s compound strikes us as heroic. But the SEALs and the drone are just tools — the flat head and Phillips head screwdriver at the end of the targeting system. And the initial parts of that system can be offered to other countries, like Ukraine, which do the killing themselves. (In a press briefing on May 5, the Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, distanced the United States only slightly from the killing of Russian generals: “We do not provide intelligence on the location of senior military leaders on the battlefield or participate in the targeting decisions of the Ukrainian military,” he said, but he freely admitted we provide Ukraine with relevant intelligence.)

What does this look like in practice? Thanks in part to reporting by The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, we can look to Colombia for several examples. Starting in 2007 we helped kill dozens of guerrilla commanders in Colombia’s long-running civil war. The C.I.A. trained Colombian close air support teams to use lasers to guide smart bombs to their targets, and trained interrogators to more effectively question subjects so that their information could be fed into an evolving database of information. The National Security Agency worked round the clock feeding data intercepts to ground forces.

In one instance, the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration helped trace a satellite phone call between Hugo Chávez and a senior guerrilla leader. This intelligence was checked against information from a Colombian informant. The leader was located in a camp inside Ecuador. U.S. national security lawyers ruled the strike permissible as an act of self-defense. The U.S. provided the Colombians with smart bombs and the Colombians flew three light attack aircraft loaded with those smart bombs, followed by five planes loaded with conventional bombs. The bombs’ guidance system was turned on once they closed in on their target, and Colombians dropped first the smart bombs, and then the conventional bombs to cover their tracks. The decision to provide U.S. support, made and justified by officials and lawyers whose names we still don’t know, in a complex conflict most Americans have no idea the United States has been heavily involved in, set off a diplomatic crisis between Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia.

And since lethal precedents can outlast the causes for which they were enlisted, the aid to Colombia didn’t stop once the official war did. After the rebels signed a peace treaty in 2016, U.S. foreign aid continued to grow, now approaching half of a billion dollars a year. Instead of targeting guerrilla fighters as part of a continuing war, the Colombian military took over a police action against a large drug gang of which Inglaterra was a member, and at points the United States has provided real-time intelligence.

This style of warfare has always been secretive, involving as it does intelligence services and Special Operations units. But as America shifted from large deployments to more reliance on drones and airstrikes and special operators, that secretive side of warfare became a larger share of our global military presence. Then Donald Trump took office and, responding to a nation skeptical of our wars but still thrilled by the idea of targeted killings, he expanded the already ballooning Special Operations Command at a pace its former commander described as “frantic” — training forces in countries on Russia’s borders, policing weapons of mass destruction, combating the Taliban, Al Shabab, ISIS, and Al Qaeda while also rolling back transparency. Trump’s Department of Defense wouldn’t disclose troop numbers, details of airstrikes, or even give regular press briefings at the Pentagon. And as yet the Biden administration has not offered much more clarity on their counterterrorism policies either.

The rationale for keeping us in the dark is always national security concerns, and there are real risks. Revelations about targeting Russian generals might invite retaliation. Exposing granular detail on operations puts sources and methods in jeopardy. But secrecy also hides issues of public concern from public scrutiny.

As for President Biden’s plans for American forces in Somalia, it’s not clear why the administration thinks Al Shabab, which doesn’t operate much outside the Horn of Africa, represents a threat to the United States. It’s not clear how this operation fits into our larger counterterrorism strategy, what the legal rationale is for conducting targeted killings, and what rules will govern the strikes.

This last piece is particularly important. The recent Pulitzer Prizing-winning journalism led by Azmat Khan has shown that U.S. government reports on our strikes routinely failed to detect civilian casualties, investigate on the ground, identify causes of errors in targeting, or discipline anyone for wrongdoing. These failures have consequences: a father watching the headless corpse of his 14-month-old daughter, nestled in her dead mother’s arms, lifted from the ruins of his home. An extended family of 21 people turned into “just pieces of meat.” The current level of secrecy practiced by the U.S. military demands a level of trust that is unearned. The victims of these strikes demand our skepticism.

When our president declares, as Mr. Biden did to the United Nations in September, “I stand here today for the first time in 20 years with the United States not at war,” it’s not just a pleasant falsehood it’d be pretty to believe. It’s something more corrosive.

War — the killing of other people on our behalf, as citizens — is the most morally consequential thing a nation can do. As Americans, we should take that responsibility seriously. Congress should debate it, and Americans should as well. None of that can happen if year after year, lethal strike after lethal strike, the needs of national security are invoked to hide it from view.

Every April we pay our taxes, and if there are men and women out there who we’re paying to kill people, we should know.

Phil Klay, a Marine Corps veteran and professor at Fairfield University, is the author of “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in and Age of Endless, Invisible War.”

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