While the United States and the world was in an uproar over Donald Trump’s executive order (EO) on immigration that even conservative sources view as unconstitutional and illegal, Trump reorganized the National Security Council (NSC), adding his chief strategist Steven Bannon and decreasing the participation and status of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, currently General Joseph Dunford, as well as the director of national intelligence (DNI), a position that remains vacated until a Trump nominee, currently Dan Coats, can be confirmed.
Meanwhile, a specific and particularly terrifying possibility has been making the rounds on social media—that Bannon could have a role in a secretive NSC panel with the authority to place suspected terrorists, including Americans, on a kill or capture list and to make decisions to kill or capture without due process or any information or justification provided to the public.
This sounds like exactly the kind of conspiracy theory we debunk on this site, but the panel and the list do exist. Mark Hosenball wrote about it for Reuters in 2011, focusing on the killing by CIA drones of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American with alleged terrorist ties who was in Yemen at the time. Hosenball reported,
There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.
A year later, Greg Miller at the Washington Post reported in more depth on the program, describing the list as part of a terrorist-targeting database referred to as the disposition matrix during the Obama administration.
The authorization for the panel and the targeted list is argued to be the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress after September 11, 2001 (PL 107-40), as well as international law allowing a country to take such steps in defense. This authorization has never been repealed, although many across the political spectrum have criticized its justification and use.
That panel and that list will now potentially involve Steven Bannon, who is on leave from his position as editor of Breitbart, a site known for espousing conspiracy theories and other fabricated “news” as well as offering all the racism and misogyny a white nationalist can dream of. In keeping with Trump’s pattern of appointments, he is completely unqualified for a national security position of any kind, and he is on record describing himself as a “Leninist,” saying “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”
Bannon will be one of NSC members permanently on the principals committee, along with with Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, known for actively spreading conspiracy theories and other fabrications, known as “Flynn facts” to those who worked under him at the Defense Intelligence Agency before he was fired.
Further, both Bannon and Flynn are still under investigation for their ties to the Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
With the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the DNI no longer permanent members of the principals committee, to be invited only as needed, Bannon and Flynn will have important checks removed on any attempts to influence or control the secretive NSC panel, the list of targets, and the decisions to capture or kill Americans—all without the public ever knowing anything about it.
Beyond the power to extrajudicially murder Americans in secret, we have no assurance that the list itself won’t be tampered with. Under previous administrations, the panel’s recommendations have allegedly undergone vetting by Justice Department and NSC lawyers, but all of this is now under the purview of Trump, who can change the process or use lawyers who will simply rubber stamp the panel’s decisions, much as Trump’s attorney Sheri Dillon did for his refusal to divest.
Further, Trump’s open disdain for US intelligence agencies and repeated discussion of revamping them does not give us any reason to believe that we’ll be able to rely on objective intelligence officials to ensure that the list remains rooted in real terrorism threats and that decisions to kill or capture are reached honestly and without political or personal motivations.
To be clear: The existence of this panel and the list, without any meaningful enforced oversight, is a problem regardless of who is president. But that problem is exponentially worse under a president who lies far more than he tells the truth, has shown himself to be vengeful against his perceived enemies, and seems to have as little regard for the input of people with expertise and experience—including his own appointees—as he does for our constitution, laws, and people.
His appointment of Flynn and his placement of Bannon on the NSC, while cutting the principals committee in half, including but not limited to revoking the permanent status of the joint chiefs chair and the DNI, gives Americans no reassurance that our national security—and our individual security as citizens—is not fatally at risk.
What you can do
- Call your senators and representative and demand that they voice their opposition to Bannon’s appointment and immediately begin legislation to provide oversight of the disposition matrix and its use that is independent of the president while retaining the clearance necessary to review the materials.
- Insist that your senators not confirm any more cabinet nominees until this is taken care of.
- UPDATE: Insist that your representatives withhold consent on all business until this is addressed.
- Don’t let this fall through the cracks. Protest and keep following up with Congress until these problems are addressed.
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