If You Liked “Enhanced Interrogation,” You’ll Love The “Disposition Matrix”

Is THIS the Administration’s secret weapon against terrorists?

The Washington Post launched a three-part series today about the U.S. drone strike program, in which terrorists abroad are targeted and assassinated from the sky. I’m not prepared to attempt an ethical analysis of this deadly tool against international terrorism, although I will acknowledge that my initial, gut level assessment is that the unique nature of terrorism requires adjustments in the ethics of national security and warfare, and drone killings seem to be a fair and reasonable adjustment.

Yet it is still killing. It is also controversial, with many human rights activists, international law specialists and ethicists vehemently condemning the tactic, especially when used against turn-coat Americans abroad without due process of law. Consequently, the Post’s revelation that the Administration’s “kill list” is called something else rings the ethics alarms.

The Post:

“Over the past two years, the Obama administration has been secretly developing a new blueprint for pursuing terrorists, a next-generation targeting list 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. 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.”

“Disposition matrix” is a particularly annoying and deceitful official euphemism, though they all are annoying. They are all annoying because they are dishonest. The objective of such phrases, which in the past I have referred to as “cover phrases,” is to mislead the public, and to deceive it into believing that conduct is less troubling than it really is, or worse, different conduct entirely.

The worst cover phrase in recent years was the Bush Administration’s euphemism for torture, enhanced interrogation. In my view, the willingness to torture the English language to hide the clear intent and effect of conduct shows a government that is willing to lie to its citizens, and that cannot be trusted. The Bush Administration and its most ardent supporters even went a step further, denying that enhanced interrogation was torture, even when it involved such traditional torture methods as water-boarding. Disgraceful. Enhanced interrogation is when Kyra Sedgewick is brought in to sweat a confession out of a murder suspect on “The Closer.” Enhanced interrogation is when Raymond Burr, as Perry Mason, cross-examined a witness until he cracked and screamed out, “All right! All right! I did it! I strangled her! I loved her, but she treated me like dirt, I tell you! Dirt! I just couldn’t take it any more! No man could, don’t you see??” Using words to disguise unethical government conduct shows me a government that regards the public as marks, fools, or hostile forces. That is no way for a democratically elected  government to treat the people who employ them.

I know this is a sore point right now, but this administration was supposed to be different. The pledge in 2008 was “transparency.” Cover phrases, by definition, are not transparent, and “disposition matrix” is one of the most opaque yet. If the American public objects to its government assassinating enemies of the U.S. outside of wartime, it can only make its sentiments known if it knows there is a kill list. A disposition matrix sounds like a chart showing that Chow-Chows are more likely to nip than greyhounds, and Norwich Terriers are more happy-go-lucky than Akitas.

A government that uses cover phrases doesn’t trust its own citizens. “Disposition matrix” is designed to mislead and deceive, and we should call it what it is.

A lie.


Pointer: Chris Plante

Source: Washington Post

Graphic: Dr. Sophia Yin

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

9 thoughts on “If You Liked “Enhanced Interrogation,” You’ll Love The “Disposition Matrix”

  1. Agreed… And glad to see that you think Lying is unethical. Welcome to the correct side of the Thought Structure™. Now we need to put that same examination to the whole political process, Romney and Obama included.

  2. I will not make a presumption, and I disagree with a conclusion, that the terminology is lying by design.

    It’s a kill list, or, a kill-or-be-killed list. Everybody knows it – or at least, anybody with an IQ high enough to make a list about any subject could figure it out; nobody’s fooled. So what difference does it make that “kill” and “list” are not part of what the kill list is called? I am not persuaded that “Disposition Matrix” is a “cover phrase.” In its context, “Disposition” is quite direct and explicit, in contrast to the naked euphemism of “enhanced” interrogation.

    It’s better that the kill list is named in a way that reflects the forethought and deliberation – and even, perhaps, consideration of ethical problems – that reasonable, ethical, competent and reliably civil people, who are under threat of murder and also responsible for avoiding the murder of fellow citizens, could be reasonably expected to devote in creating such a list.

    Another possible name for a document that covers the topic might be “Decision Scheme for Extraterritorial Confrontation of Anti-American Belligerents.” It doesn’t make sense to me to fault someone for distilling that into “Disposition Matrix.” Even that lengthy name, by itself and without explanation, risks miscommunication and misinterpretations – for example, leaving out “Foreign,” which could be construed to indicate that the scheme aims to kill American citizens who aim to commit “belligerence” against the U.S., in “places abroad.” Perhaps “Confrontation” is too explicit – or too vague. Perhaps “Belligerents” is too wishy-washy, or too darkly and “threateningly” inclusive, and should just be “Terrorists” (whatever or whoever they are).

    I refuse to believe that other world powers, with means and reasons to do what the U.S. leadership aims to do as reflected in the Disposition Matrix, do not have their own Matrix documents; how are those documents titled? Perhaps the Post could find out and tell. I read where France sent a couple of its drones to Mali; certainly the Israelis have some plans for their drones like the U.S.

    I agree generally with the ethical principle of using terminology without deliberate intent to deceive. But I also am a big fan of diplomacy and secrecy, which naturally pose high risks of misunderstandings and miscommunications, and where some deception can arguably be ethical.

    (Recalling a “quarantine,” 50 years ago this week.)

    • As “Disposition” is not a recognized synonym for “kill” and “matrix” is jargon, the objective is to hide the ball, which is, in fact deceptive and misleading, ergo, lying. It also has the effect of sanitizing the conduct for those who engage in it, making it seem to be something other than what it is. Also unethical.

    • “Disposition” is NEITHER direct NOR explicit. My last will and testament directs the “disposition” of my property. As a Platoon Leader in the Army, I gave orders describing the “disposition” of enemy soldiers (as they were arranged on the battlefield), the “disposition” of my soldiers (as they maneuvered on the battlefield), and the “disposition” of Prisoner’s of War (as they were directed to the proper detention facility). When I spill coffee on my lap, my “disposition” changes immediately from happy to angry.

      Try again. Don’t use the “Everybody Knows It” argument. That’s one of the worst academic dishonesties around.

      “Kill List” does reflect forethought and deliberation. No name reaches that list until great deliberation determines a High Value Target does warrant inclusion in that list.

      If this “Kill List” has any other “dispositions” prescribed in its “matrix” then great, give it a better name. The military has them, called “High Value Target Lists”. That is not deceptive, and a transparent government would readily describe what the prescribed action per target would be – kill, detain, or observe.

      • You’re arguing over standard dictionary meanings versus Defense Department Speak versus State Department Speak (minus Alexander Haig [cheap joke]).

        Yes, in a diplomatic sense, “disposition” is direct and explicit. Its meaning is broad enough to be construed as inclusive of, and circumstantially synonymous with, killing. The matrix, without knowing more about its contents and supporting documents, may well be titled using “disposition” because a kill is not necessarily the action for decision. Kill, detain, or observe, plus other verbs, fit well as manners or manifestations of disposition.

        “Dispatch” has some meaning and prior use that makes it worth considering as an alternative to “disposition,” but its use is to narrowly and inflexibly associated with killing. “Neutralize,” or a form of it, has been used in top circles of decision makers to refer to killing, though I think it is a terrible choice for a synonym, in almost every context. “Belligerents” seems a precise term for doers or would-be doers of violence to Americans and to other “entities” reasoned to be “objects of U.S. interests.”

        My “everybody knows it” argument is not for the academic everybody. The Post is covering “inside baseball” where the game is a protracted war of unforeseeable duration. Those who need to know – those, who the rest of us (who do not have a need to know) are also justified in expecting to know as they have need to know – had better be that “everybody,” for their own and their customers’ sakes.

        But I reject the notion that the authors of a non-public document or set of documents and its/their “affected deciders” are ethically obligated to title those documents in a manner that makes the documents’ contents immediately, easily discernible and explicit to some broader public. The Post is doing its usual job of facilitating sufficient accountability for those who are producing and carrying out the purposes of such documents, no matter their titles.

        • Damn those standard dictionary definitions and people who use them to understand communication. Damn us especially when we don’t like the government using words whose meanings do not even cover what a list is for.

          Try cracking open one of those “Department of Defense Speak” dictionaries. For example, try Field Manual 1-02: Operational Terms and Graphics. Every term used by the military is synonymous with its everyday use, if slightly modified for a military context. In terms of effects on target, Neutralize can include killing, but it can also include simply removing the ability of the target to be a threat.

          “Disposition Matrix” is simply a term concocted to mislead the public from the harsh reality of what it really is, mostly because those who concocted the term know their base of support is generally in opposition to the potentially prescribed by the ‘matrix’. Again, the military has long used a non-ambiguous term for such a thing: High Value Target List. That is explicit, and given a government wishing to be transparent, easily explainable without changing the meanings of words.

          Your final paragraph:
          “But I reject the notion that the authors of a non-public document or set of documents and its/their “affected deciders” are ethically obligated to title those documents in a manner that makes the documents’ contents immediately, easily discernible and explicit to some broader public. The Post is doing its usual job of facilitating sufficient accountability for those who are producing and carrying out the purposes of such documents, no matter their titles.”

          Sentence 1 implies we have no business knowing about the list.
          Sentence 2 implies we do have business knowing about the list.

          Which is it?

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