Enter the ‘disposition matrix’: White House institutionalizes kill list

A model of a drone aircraft sits outside Duke Energy headquarters in Uptown, the Charlotte the business district, before the start of the Democratic National...
A model of a drone aircraft sits outside Duke Energy headquarters in Uptown, the Charlotte the business district, before the start of the Democratic National...
Tom Pennington

The Obama administration is expanding and institutionalizing its controversial counter-terror targeted killing program, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday. What used to be a White House “kill list” will soon be a sophisticated, permanent targeting system called the “disposition matrix.”

“The matrix contains the names of terrorism suspects arrayed against an accounting of the resources being marshaled to track them down, including sealed indictments and clandestine operations,” reports the Post’s Greg Miller. ”U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.”

This is part, he writes, of the administration’s larger push toward institutionalizing “the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.”

Reuters first reported on a secret National Security Council “kill list” in October 2011. In late May of this year, the Associated Press revealed that President Obama was the final “decider” regarding what names belonged on the list. The disposition matrix would reportedly leave the president with a less active role in kill list decisions, reports Miller.

Instead, it appears that the  National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) will instead generate kill lists through the disposition matrix.

The ACLU of Massachusetts’ Kade Crockford writes that this development is particularly alarming given that the NCTC collects data on “most people in the United States.” She points to research by the national ACLU’s legislative counsel that alleges:

As long as NCTC says its search is aimed at identifying terrorism information, it may conduct queries that involve non-terrorism data points and pattern-based searches and analysis (data mining)… Not only do they mean that anytime you interact with any government agency you essentially enter a lineup as a potential terrorist, they also rely on a technique, data mining, which has been thoroughly discredited as a useful tool for identifying terrorists.

The ACLU alleges that the U.S. government has already been responsible for the unlawful killing of three American citizens, including a 16-year-old boy. The Justice Department has replied that it never “officially acknowledged” any involvement in the killings, though it asserts that such killings would be legal.

The ACLU has filed three separate lawsuits against the federal government regarding targeted killing and drone strikes generally. In a statement responding to the “disposition matrix,” ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi again condemned the targeted killings.

“Anyone who thought U.S. targeted killing outside of armed conflict was a narrow, emergency-based exception to the requirement of due process before a death sentence is being proven conclusively wrong,” Shamsi said.

The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, an occasional guest on msnbc and harsh critic of the administration’s counter-terror practices, blasted the disposition matrix as “classic political dystopia brought to reality.”

“It is literally impossible to imagine a more violent repudiation of the basic blueprint of the republic than the development of a secretive, totally unaccountable executive branch agency that simultaneously collects information about all citizens and then applies a ‘disposition matrix’ to determine what punishment should be meted out,” he wrote on Wednesday.