The Disposition Matrix

October 24th, 2012  |  Published in anti-Star Trek, Political Economy, Politics

“The Disposition Matrix” sounds like a dystopian science fiction novel. And indeed it is, but unfortunately it’s being written by the American counter-terrorism bureaucracy, and rolled out as the blueprint for a future of state-sanctioned death squads.

The Washington Post prints a riveting chapter of this story, a sequel to Obama’s notorious “kill list”. We discover the existence of a “next generation targeting list” (the aforementioned matrix), a spreadsheet of doom which will be used to keep track of all the undesirables now targeted for elimination by the CIA.

The story expertly combines bureaucratic tedium with horrific violence, and it is full of bizarre and terrifying lines. “The database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the ‘disposition’ of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.” Drone assasination is now the first resort of the state.


“‘We can’t possibly kill everyone who wants to harm us,’ a senior administration official said. ‘It’s a necessary part of what we do.'” Killing is ineffectual, which is why killing must remain our business forever. “Mitt Romney made it clear that he would continue the drone campaign. ‘We can’t kill our way out of this,’ he said, but added later that Obama was ‘right to up the usage’ of drone strikes and that he would do the same.” We can’t kill our way out of this, so we must keep killing. You must go on. You can’t go on. You’ll go on.

“‘We had a disposition problem,’ said a former U.S. counterterrorism official involved in developing the matrix.” The problem was that there remained some people that the U.S. government was unable to kill.

Once, a man was captured off the coast of Yemen. “‘Warsame was a classic case of “What are we going to do with him?” ‘ the former counterterrorism official said. In such cases, the matrix lays out plans.” Perhaps we require “camps . . . used for ‘suspects’ whose offenses could not be proved and who could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law.”

“The proposal, which would need White House approval, reflects the [CIA]’s transformation into a paramilitary force, and makes clear that it does not intend to dismantle its drone program and return to its pre-Sept. 11 focus on gathering intelligence.” This will be very different from the Tonton Macoutes. There will be no rustic straw hats and denim shirts this time.

“The matrix was developed by the NCTC, under former director Michael Leiter, to augment those organizations’ separate but overlapping kill lists, officials said.” This is typical of the bloated, inefficient government bureaucracy. One day they’ll think to outsource the machinery of death entirely.

“‘The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower,’ said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser. ‘You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.'” You kill them and kill them, but they just keep growing back. After a time, “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it.”

“The approach also applies to the development of criteria for ‘signature strikes,’ which allow the CIA and JSOC to hit targets based on patterns of activity . . . even when the identities of those who would be killed is unclear.” Like Google’s search algorithm, the characteristics that will make you deserving of government assasination are obscure.

“For an administration that is the first to embrace targeted killing on a wide scale, officials seem confident that they have devised an approach that is so bureaucratically, legally and morally sound that future administrations will follow suit.” Barack Obama truly deserved his Nobel peace prize after all; he inaugurated the most moral campaign of wide scale killing in history.

“The number of targets on the lists isn’t fixed, officials said, but fluctuates based on adjustments to criteria. Officials defended the arrangement even while acknowledging an erosion in the caliber of operatives placed in the drones’ cross hairs.” Targeted killing used to be glamorous and sophisticated, but these days it’s a bore. All the good targets are already dead.

“A senior aide to Panetta disputed this account, and said Panetta mentioned the shrinking target list during his trip to Islamabad but didn’t raise the prospect that drone strikes would end. Two former U.S. officials said the White House told Panetta to avoid even hinting at commitments the United States was not prepared to keep.” If we stop the killing, the terrorists will have won. If we say that we will stop the killing in the future, the terrorists will have won. If we hint that we might commit to stopping the killing in the future, the terrorists will have won.


It comes back, as it always does for me, to “Four Futures”. The fourth chapter of that essay is titled “Exterminism”, and it suggests the following:

Many of the rich . . . have resigned themselves to barricading themselves into their fortresses, to be protected by unmanned drones and private military contractors. Guard labor . . . reappears in an even more malevolent form, as a lucky few are employed as enforcers and protectors for the rich.

But this too, is an unstable equilibrium, for the same basic reason that buying off the masses is. So long as the immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that it may one day become impossible to hold them at bay. Once mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor.

Until now, we have relied on the prison system to warehouse the unemployed and unemployable, but there just seem to be more and more of them. How long until someone like Pete Peterson demands, in the name of fiscal responsibility, that we begin liquidating these stocks of unproductive bodies?

Fortunately, the disposition matrix has nothing to do with such fears. The targets of the lists are not surplus labor, after all, we are merely terrorists.

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