Signature Strikes

A signature strike (as opposed to a personality strike) refers to the practice of targeting an individual or group of individuals for lethal action based on his “pattern of activity.” According to many accounts, the identity of the specific targets may not even be known to the US when the decision to use lethal force is made. Rather the decision-maker simply determines that an individual or group of individuals, based upon certain behaviors as well as their affiliations, constitute a sufficient threat to justify the kill decision. The CIA appears to label deceased targets whose identities were unknown as “other militants.”

Signature strikes raise a number of legal issues, including the nature of the threat, the imminence of the threat, and the right to due process. Additionally, by not knowing the actual identity of a target, there exists the very real possibility that the individual was simply a civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to a classified CIA report on drone strikes in Pakistan between September 3, 2010 and October 30, 2011, approximately 600 people were killed but only one person is described as a civilian. Yet organizations, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which independently track drone strikes, have identified many more civilian casualties than one.

In 2013, three members of the House Intelligence Committee (Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Luis Gutierrez and Ed Pastor) attempted to ban signature strikes, but the amendment was voted down 3-17. Rep. Schakowsky, the bill’s author, said, “I just think it is time for us to consider this kind of perpetual war and also take into account: what’s the blowback?…It’s a cost-benefit analysis as well, not just a moral question.”