Joe Biden's Disposition Matrix

The Obama administration created a bureaucratic entity with life-or-death power to "dispose" of suspected terrorists. A senior official confirms that Biden has brought it back.

Joe Biden's Disposition Matrix
"In the Garden of Death" by Hugo Simberg, 1896

Edited by Sam Thielman

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION has reinstated a bureaucratic structure, created under Barack Obama, that wields the power of life and death.

During the Obama era, it was known as the Disposition Matrix. A senior Biden administration official confirmed that the internal processes that comprised the Disposition Matrix, released in declassified form in a 2013 document known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, form the template for a 2022 document called the Presidential Policy Memorandum, or PPM. Thus far, they're rechristening this "the PPM Process."

The PPM Process itself is one in which a "nomination"—that is, marking someone for death—filters up from the national-security bureaucracy to select committees of senior national-security appointees and then to either the defense secretary or the CIA director and the president. On paper, this review process is supposed to filter out questionable judgments or interests and leave only righteous terrorist kills.

On one level, resurrecting the matrix is meant to operate as a constraint upon lethal counterterrorism actions.  Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shorthands it, "You Must Explain Yourself." One of Donald Trump's early acts as president was to abolish the process and devolve authorities for lethal strikes to military commanders and senior CIA leaders, who no longer had to explain themselves.

On another level, one familiar to readers of REIGN OF TERROR, the move institutionalizes extrajudicial executions, creating a process that is less an obstacle such actions and more a bureaucratic path to navigate. Based on conversations with both the senior administration official—whose perspective, according to the rules of our interview, I can summarize but not directly quote—and others familiar with the new rules, the process leaves substantial loopholes for discretionary "dynamic" strikes, much as Obama's did. And I have to report all this out because the Biden administration is opting not to release any of its guiding strategy or policy documents on counterterrorism, though the administration says it's considering whether it can make further disclosures down the line.

THESE RULES FOR DRONE STRIKES and special operations raids resulted from the completion of a roughly 18-month review ordered by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and conducted by Biden's senior adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall. As it happens, I broke the story of that review existing. Charlie Savage of the New York Times quickly outpaced me on the story, and earlier this month, published what as best I can tell is the only piece about the review’s conclusion and its results. These are the rules that are supposed to govern Biden's "over the horizon" counterterrorism. But with the U.S. out of Afghanistan—in the military sense—the Biden era of counterterrorism is treated as a relative non-story.

I've spent the time since Charlie's story attempting to follow up. He first reported the Biden team’s decision to keep the documents guiding its counterterrorism strategy and policy out of public view. That decision represents continuity with Trump's rejection of (already-meager) transparency requirements, such as releasing a (not really credible) casualty estimate, and discontinuity with Obama, who imposed them.

That decision calls into question the section of Biden's recent National Security Strategy that pledges to conduct counterterrorism "while promoting greater transparency and accountability." I asked the NSC for a formal explanation of this apparently contradictory preference for secrecy. A senior administration official defended the Biden team's overall transparency record, and pointed specifically to its briefings on the execution of Ayman al-Zawahiri and U.S. Africa Command's (AFRICOM) disclosure of Somalia strikes. (Airwars records 22 drone strikes in Somalia since Biden took office, 12 of them declared.) While acknowledging the dissatisfaction with withholding the PPM, the official said intelligence officials argued that disclosure would allow potential targets to understand the criteria that would go into their potential inclusion.

I would note here that this echoes the argument the Obama-era Justice Department made for withholding the PPM's predecessor when the ACLU sued for disclosure of the disposition matrix. But it abandoned that argument after federal judge Colleen McMahon indicated her dissatisfaction and released a version in 2016 to preempt McMahon compelling the department to do so. Any lawyers out there want to help me sue?

The administration is willing to examine increased disclosure around casualty totals, while noting recent civilian-casualty requirements imposed on the military (though not the intelligence agencies) by the annual defense authorization bill. (Here's a recent Just Security piece summarizing the problems with those.)

THE STRATEGY REVIEW RESULTED in two foundational documents. The overarching one is formally known as the National Security Memorandum on International Counterterrorism Policy, NSM for short. That document, authored by Sherwood-Randall, and referred to as her memo in Charlie's piece, provides a big-picture overview of how the administration sees the terrorism threat to the U.S. at present. As indicated by the word "international" in the title, none of this applies to homegrown far-right and white supremacist radicals and militias. They're the subject of a separate strategy, released last year, and aren't subject to a disposition matrix. (In the interests of focus, I'd like to deal with that subject in a subsequent edition.)

The NSM creates a tiering structure for ranking those threats across the globe, and sets out which means of response are appropriate for which tier. The document is said to reflect a formal desire to use so-called "non-kinetic" options—such as training of foreign-military partner forces—to lethal ones. But those options are often ways of outsourcing violence from U.S. forces to foreign proxy forces.

Similarly, as with its Obama-era predecessor, there's a stated preference in the NSM for capturing instead of killing. But without Biden setting a detentions policy, as I understand this document does not, that preference is unlikely to be more than window dressing.

A theme of the NSM, according to the senior official, is that lethal strikes are to be rare. They're to be reserved for cases in which Americans actively find themselves at risk from terrorism. We're going to come back to this in a moment. But the animating principle behind the restraint is familiar from the Obama administration (and to REIGN readers): making counterterrorism sustainable while the administration prioritizes other foreign-policy issues—taking with them budgets, forces, hardware, intelligence assets and institutional/political attention—in this case, supporting Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion and "competing" with China.

The NSM operates at a level of generality. Its goals are things like preventing radicalization and denying terrorist groups the grievances they use to recruit. At the same time, the document blesses longstanding and embittering counterterrorism practices like watchlisting. Nor does it lay out any new approach to foreseeable radicalization disasters like an open-air prison camp the size of a small city in northern Syria known as al-Hol, where an estimated 55,000 people displaced by the fighting against ISIS are the unwilling guests of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces. That's a partial consequence of Western governments' refusal to repatriate their citizens who joined or fought alongside ISIS. It also seems like the sort of thing a top-level strategy document concerned about future terrorist radicalization and recruitment ought to address.

While restraint is its stated guiding principle, I'm also led to understand that the NSM does not recommend abolishing any extant counterterrorism authorities. The National Security Strategy cites a goal of "replac[ing] outdated authorizations for the use of military force with a narrow and specific framework," a reference to the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. But that's not pursued in this document. There wasn't much reason to believe Biden would pursue an AUMF repeal before the NSM, because he didn't do so even when his party controlled Congress. But particularly with a likely Republican Congress incoming, I think it's clear the AUMF will outlive its fourth president.

THEN COMES THE SECOND DOCUMENT, the Presidential Policy Memorandum, which sets in place the Biden-era disposition matrix. The PPM governs and sets the process for using deadly force outside of areas of active hostilities—which in 2022 means everywhere besides Iraq and Syria. There, battlefield counterterrorism decisions devolve to the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (as of last month, Army Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane). I have to pause here to note that last year, Biden stated that the 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq are in an "advisory" role and not a combat one. But as in the Obama administration, Biden national-security appointees will possess the power of life and death in a bureaucratic, nonjudicial process.

Outside of Iraq and Syria, the PPM requires the Pentagon, CIA and the rest of the national-security apparatus to develop so-called "Country Plans" for proposed counterterrorism operations and claims on counterterrorism resources like drones, commensurate with the threat tiering established by the NSM. In keeping with those plans, when counterterrorism operators propose killing or capturing someone, the review process filters bureaucratically upwarda process reminiscent of Obama'suntil it reaches Biden for a final decision. The country plans, according to the senior official, are currently in formulation, following Biden's approval of the NSM and the PPM.

The administration would not specify who plays any role in its updated disposition matrix. But its Obama-era predecessor empaneled a Restricted Counterterrorism Security Group that reviewed death nominations, and on it sat representatives (we don't know exactly who) from State, CIA, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Treasury, Justice, the National Counterterrorism Center, Homeland Security and others. Their life-and-death work was reviewed by the deputies of those agencies. A successful nomination for capture or killing went to the heads of the Pentagon and the CIA, and then to the President. Overseeing the matrix was the senior NSC official for counterterrorism, who in this administration is Sherwood-Randall.

UNDER THE NEW RULES, the PPM, as described to me, takes an important step for which the Biden administration deserves credit: The country plans have to specify exactly which militant organizations are to be targeted.

This reverses 20 years of deliberate vagueness. Previously, officials targeted unspecified "affiliates" of al-Qaeda, ISIS and so forth. It should be recognized as an achievement of Biden's counterterrorism team. There are ways to lawyer that into meaninglessness, such as stretching the definition of membership, but under Biden, counterterrorism operations can only occur against members of listed (though not necessarily disclosed) organizations, not anyone theoretically targetable under the 2001 AUMF. Charlie also reported that the PPM does away with signature strikes, in which the Pentagon or CIA can kill someone who fits a perceived pattern of militant activity without necessarily knowing who they are.

But then the document, again as described to me, takes a step that risks undermining these important restrictions. For the killing of named, specified, suspected-terrorist targets outside of Iraq and Syria, the PPM bureaucratic process applies. But it doesn't apply, per the senior official, in circumstances where the Pentagon is relying on partnered foreign militaries, an option the NSM, ratifying a longstanding trend in U.S. counterterrorism, establishes as preferable to direct U.S. action. In such cases, as a general principle, the U.S. military permits strikes in defense of a partner military under attack at commanders' discretion. Understandable as that principle may be, in practice, it drives counterterrorism drift and expansion.

AS AN EXAMPLE OF HOW THIS WORKS, take Somalia, as it's where Biden has launched the most drone strikes of his presidency.

Somalia is not an active theater of conflict under the NSM and the PPM, despite it being the major theater of the War on Terror outside of Iraq-Syria. Yet the majority of drone strikes conducted by AFRICOM in Somalia are in the stated defense of Somali forces. Last Sunday, for instance, AFRICOM launched airstrikes against suspected al-Shabaab militants "who were attacking Somali National Army forces."

All this illustrates a longstanding dichotomy in counterterrorism circles between "determined" strikes, strikes taken to kill a specific person, and "dynamic" strikes, those against targets of opportunity or battlefield necessity. As a matter of reason, the distinction is clear enough. But as a matter of practice, the more permissive a "dynamic" strike allowance, the likelier it is to occur. Suddenly all the constraints placed on determined strikes are overwhelmed by a theater counterterrorism policy that functionally operates as an air force for a partner military under challenge.

The PPM-derived country plan for Somalia might say follow this process if you seek to kill a particular person in al-Shabab who poses an acute threat to an actual U.S. person. But AFRICOM doesn't have to be so discriminating in defense of the Somali National Army, who are supposed to be the lead force against al-Shabaab in the first place. With Biden re-committing to counterterrorism in Somalia, it's frankly unsurprising that al-Shabaab would target the Somali National Army. This is how you get an escalatory cycle despite a policy formally predicated on maximal constraint. After this weekend's horrific dual car bombing in Mogadishu, which killed at least 100 people, expect the next turn of the ratchet. Charlie and his colleagues have already reported that Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud requested relaxed restrictions on U.S. counterterrorism assets in Somalia.

I asked Yager, the former senior Joint Chiefs adviser, what she made of Biden reaffirming the dynamic/determined strike dichotomy.

"In an ideal world, dynamic strikes and pre-planned strikes would have all the same rules and civilians wouldn’t be at increased risk of being killed in one versus the other. But practically speaking, there usually isn’t time for many layers of approval for a dynamic strike," she said. "That’s why we’re hoping—and frankly expecting—that the White House has conveyed their concern about civilian harm in all strikes to commanders, and that commanders have conveyed that concern to their teams. Part of any good policy is making sure everyone affected by it understands what it means and why it’s necessary. In this case, I would hope that the White House is telling the U.S. military to use more restraint, more caution, and to rein in risky dynamic strikes as much as possible."

But Yager also pointed out a problem lurking at the heart of the dynamic-strike process. "One major concern about dynamic strikes is 'confirmation bias,' which is when a bunch of data points look like one thing but actually mean something different. A drone operator looking for a target is likely going to see a target, even if what she’s watching is a family," she said. "In dynamic strikes, quick decisions have to be made and there’s more potential for confirmation bias. I don’t know if the White House has taken this into consideration or if there are any provisions to lessen this risk in the policy."

For that matter, Yager's concern also applies to determined strikes. Policymakers of a technocratic cast of mind can view the process itself as sufficiently legitimate to transfer over that legitimacy to a nomination for death or capture. Policymakers of a political cast of mind will simply be inclined to approve strikes so as not to be blamed if a spared person kills somebody. Frankly, after hearing that the Obama Disposition Matrix was often Avril Haines arguing for restraint against most everyone else, I think it's safe to conclude there's a tacit presumption of guilt in these closed-door death panels, irrespective of any formal standard for "near certainty" that a strike won't kill innocents. (I suspect the added restrictions reported here reflect Haines now being Director of National Intelligence.) How rigorous can this process be in an administration that has publicly signaled its preference for occupying its foreign-policy time with other issues?

More broadly, Yager observed to FOREVER WARS last year that the Sullivan/Sherwood-Randall counterterrorism review would be "a fairly useless exercise if policymakers didn’t question the assumptions the U.S. government has been making for twenty years now." Does the NSM and the PPM reflect, to her, such a fundamental reconsideration?

"It’s impossible for us to know whether the Biden White House looked at counterterrorism with fresh eyes and a blank canvas. The counterterrorism framework that they developed reverts to Obama-era policies, as far as we can tell from reporting. And that’s what such a framework is supposed to do—it’s supposed to define the margins that the US military will operate in between," Yager said. "But did they also have a meeting in which U.S. officials asked themselves whether lethal targeting is effective, or appropriate? Did they question what other tools are in their toolkit that might harm less people? Did they question whether the U.S. actually has the authority to do what it is doing, or what precedent they’re creating globally? Again, we don’t know for sure, but I suspect this was not the discussion that was had at the White House and that’s a shame."

THAT WAS A LOT, I KNOW. Reporting this out is a major reason FOREVER WARS didn't publish much in October. But before we go, don't miss this Nick Turse piece in Rolling Stone about U.S. counterterrorism in Africa, which is producing little in terms of intended result and much in terms of coups by U.S.-trained officers. "West African officers trained and advised by U.S. special operators keep overthrowing the governments the United States is trying to prop up—including four coups by Flintlock attendees since 2020," Terse writes, referring to the premiere U.S. military training exercise in Africa.

SAIFULLAH PARACHA, who at 75 years old has been the oldest man caged by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, is finally free. He lost 19 years of his life to the War on Terror and the U.S. never charged him with a crime.

DHS ACTIVITY IN PORTLAND AGAINST THE 2020 BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTESTS was worse than previously understood. Sen. Ron Wyden last week released internal documents that deserve their own treatment, so I'll get to that later, but for now, notice that DHS' intelligence branch avers it "did not collect, exploit or analyze aerial surveillance related to Portland." That smells like bullshit—DHS didn't put those assets in the air for nothing. Maybe it was CBP that did the analysis, but it strains credulity to assert all that collection was left unanalyzed by man or machine.

HOWEVER, THE NEXT EDITION OF FOREVER WARS will be fun. And for subscribers only. Subscribe and you'll get to watch me play music while wearing a funny hat.