Posts Tagged ‘Targeted killings’

Coming clean on drone killings?

May 23, 2013

Attorney-General Eric Holder has revealed the names of four American citizens killed by flying killer drones.  They are the pro-terrorist Muslim cleric Anwar al-Alwaki; Samir Khan, who happened to be nearby when al-Alwaki was killed; Abdulrahman al-Alwaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son who was killed a few days later; and Juda Kenan Mohammed, about which nothing else is known.

droneattackobamaAnwar al-Alwaki was killed on purpose, because of he reportedly worked with terrorist plotters.  Samir Khan, Abdulrahman al-Alwaki and Juda Kenan Mohammed were killed by accident—”collateral damage.”  I can’t really generalize from a few examples, but if only one out of four victims of Obama’s flying killer drones were actual targets, this does not speak well of the supposed precision of drone strikes.

I think more Americans would be concerned about this if the unintended victims had names such as John Smith, Patrick O’Riley or Karl Andersen.   We need to remember that what can be done to people with dark skins and Arabic names can be done to people with light skins and European names (not that the latter is worse than the former).

Holder’s memo says the Obama administration’s policy is only to assassinate American citizens if they are on foreign soil and if (1) they pose an “imminent threat of violent attack” against the United States, (2) capture is not feasible and (3) the attack is conducted in accordance with the law of war.   The law of war requires that (a) killing is required by military necessity, (b) civilians are not intentionally targeted, (c) collateral damage does not exceed the military value of the operation and (d) the type of weapons used do not inflict unnecessary harm.

He gives a bill of particulars against Anwar al-Alwaki which makes a strong case that al-Alwaki was an “enemy combatant” and deserved to be targeted under these criteria—although there are observers who dispute his facts, and al-Alwaki himself, laboring under the disadvantage of being dead, is not able to give his side of the story.

Read Holder’s letter as a lawyer would.  Note that his criteria refer only to the killing of American citizens abroad.  There is nothing in the letter to limit drone killings of foreigners abroad.  In particular, there is nothing to limit the “signature strikes” killings people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia based on suspicious patterns of behavior—what you might call “walking while Muslim.”

I was struck by the supercilious tone of the letter.   Holder appears to feel that the Obama administration really wasn’t obligated to reveal the names of the four dead Americans, and that it has gone above and beyond its duty of transparency to satisfy critics in the Senate.

Actually, this stance is politically shrewd.  Obama and Holder don’t absolutely refuse to disclose what the administration is doing, but they make it as difficult as possible to obtain the most minor bits of information.  With each disclosure, the temptation for Congress must be to declare victory for transparency and give up.

When I raise questions like this, friends point to earlier periods of American history, such as the Civil War, World War One and World War Two, when civil liberties were temporarily suspended with no permanent loss of liberty.  But all these conflicts came to an end in a short time, and the country was able to return to normal.   What is different about the “war on terror” is that, on the one hand, the existence of the country is not at risk, but, on the other hand, the war is planned to last for decades and perhaps indefinitely.


Holder Letter on Counterterrorism Strikes Against U.S. Citizensa copy of Eric Holder’s letter to Patrick J. Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Acknowledges Killing 4 Americans in Drone Strikes by Charlie Savage and Peter Baker in the New York Times.

The Audacity of Eric Holder’s Letter by Conor Friedersdorf.

Washington gets explicit: its ‘war on terror’ is permanent by Glenn Greenwald.

Obama’s rationale to sign death warrants

February 6, 2013

Michael Isikoff of NBC News revealed a secret Justice Department memo giving the legal rationale for targeted killings.   Here are the highlights of his report.

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

kill-listInstead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

… … The confidential memo lays out a three-part test that would make targeted killings of American lawful: In addition to the suspect being an imminent threat, capture of the target must be “infeasible, and the strike must be conducted according to “law of war principles.” … The memo … … states that U.S. officials may consider whether an attempted capture of a suspect would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel involved in such an operation. If so, U.S. officials could determine that the capture operation of the targeted American would not be feasible, making it lawful for the U.S. government to order a killing instead, the memo concludes.

… … “A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

This on the surface sounds plausible.  If some al Qaeda operative was plotting another attack on the United States, Americans would want him stopped.  But if you read the document like a lawyer, you see the powers claimed for President Obama go far beyond that.  The memo said that the government is entitled to kill anyone that a senior government official determines is a terrorist, without having to reveal before or after the fact the basis for deciding the person is a terrorist.

When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, and John F. Kerry ran for President in 2004, they denounced President George W. Bush’s administration for claiming the power to arrest and torture people at their sole discretion.  What greater power could a dictator have than that?  Now the Obama administration is claiming the same authority to kill.   This is a greater danger to American freedom and democracy than al Qaeda.

Click on Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans for the full NBC News report.

Click on Justice Department White Paper PDF to read the text of the 16-page memo.

Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf both cut through the legal obfuscation to explain what the memo really said.

Click on Chilling Legal Memo from Obama DOJ for Glenn Greenwald’s analysis

Click on Obama’s Memo on Killing Americans for Conor Friedersdorf’s analysis.

Click on This Isn’t the Memo You’re Looking For for what we the public still don’t know about the Obama administration’s death warrant policy.


War, assassination and flying killer robots

July 20, 2012

As a weapon of war, there’s nothing wrong with drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles, aka flying killer robots.  Saturation bombing of German cities during World War Two killed many more people indiscriminately.  Drones don’t burn and disfigure as napalm does.  In Laos, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited lately, people are still being killed by cluster bombs dropped 40 or so years ago during the Vietnam Conflict; this won’t happen with drones.  And it’s not as if storming enemy territory with troops, like the Marines entering Falluja in Iraq, will save lives on either side.

No, the problem is not a problem with the technology.  The technology, as a war technology, is a good technology.  The question of drone warfare is a Constitutional question.  It is the pretense that drone warfare is not really warfare, and is not subject to Constitutional checks and balances or any other kind of accountability.

The United States has attacked Pakistan and attacked Yemen, killing bystanders, including women and children—not on the scale of Dresden or Hiroshima, but to the loved ones of those who die, it is a scale that is large enough.  We as a country are not at war with the governments of those nations, but we’re increasing the number of people who consider themselves at war with us.   Any normal human being will be enraged if someone kills his grandfather or little baby sister.  There are cultures in which it is a sacred duty to take revenge on the killers of your grandfather or little baby sister.   Month-by-month President Obama is increasing the number of people with a sacred duty to take revenge on us Americans.

President Obama claims he has the authority to kill any person, any place in the world, who in his judgment is a terrorist.  He is said to have a “hit” list with 30 names at any given time.  The hits do not have to be by drone.  Ordinary assassination will do.  The names of the people on the list, and the criteria for putting them on the list, is a secret.  If the ruler of a country has the authority to do anything against anyone, based on his personal judgment, and to keep it a secret, what power does he lack to be a dictator?

I’m willing to accept that Anwar al-Alwaki, the American-born radical Yemeni cleric killed by U.S. drones, was a bad person.   I’m not so sure about his 16-year-old son, also targeted for killing.  But even I accept, for the sake of argument, that there was no other way to bring al-Alwaki to justice, I would rather that an evil person remain at large than live under a regime in which the chief of state claims the right to kill at will.  Suppose we learned that Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin or somebody else maintained a secret list of 30 enemies of the state, selected at his sole discretion and marked for death.  What would we think?  Wouldn’t we think a line had been crossed?  How is it different with the chief executive is named Barack Obama?

Another aspect is drone warfare is that it makes it easier to be killers, but it diminishes the role of warriors.  The U.S. Air Force already has more trained drone operators (essentially highly-skilled video game players) that it does actual pilots.  It is tempting to substitute technology for fighting men, but the time may come when the United States once again faces a real threat to its existence, as it did during World War Two, and we may find that gadgets alone will not save us.

Click on The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama for an article by Tom Junod for Esquire.

Click on Obama’s killings challenged again for follow-up by Glenn Greenwald.

Due process and death warrants

June 7, 2012

I never thought I would live to see the day when the President of the United States would claim the right to sign death warrants on his own sole authority.  Even less did I think that a Democratic President who called himself a liberal would claim such a right.

President Obama claims the right to order “targeted killings” of terrorists on his own authority.  “Targeted killing” is Orwellian language.  According to the New York Times, Barack Obama defines a terrorist as any military-age male in a kill zone, unless there is intelligence demonstrating he is not.  That’s not what I would call targeting.  The President has justified the killing of unidentified people based on suspicious behavior, or based on proximity to such people, because “they are probably up to no good.”  Drone strikes have been ordered on funeral services of people who’ve been killed by previous drone strikes.

Many of us Americans are all right with that because we assume that the only people who are going to be targeted for death are brown-skinned men with Muslim names.  I think that is a naive assumption—aside from the consideration that brown-skinned men with Muslim names have as much right to live on this planet as white-skinned men with Anglo-Saxon names.  It is also naive to think that killing tribal people in places like Yemen or Pakistan’s Waziristan region will make the United States safer, rather than merely more hated.

Do you think I’m exaggerating?  This is from an article in England’s The Observer newspaper.

Amos Guiora knows all about the pitfalls of targeted assassinations, both in terms of legal process and the risk of killing the wrong people or causing civilian casualties.  The University of Utah law professor spent many years in the Israel Defence Forces, including time as a legal adviser in the Gaza Strip where such killing strikes are common.  He knows what it feels like when people weigh life-and-death decisions.

Yet Guiora – no dove on such matters – confessed he was “deeply concerned” about President Barack Obama’s own “kill list” of terrorists and the way they are eliminated by missiles fired from robot drones around the world.  He believes US policy has not tightly defined how people get on the list, leaving it open to legal and moral problems when the order to kill leaves Obama’s desk.  “He is making a decision largely devoid of external review,” Guiroa told the Observer, saying the US’s apparent methodology for deciding who is a terrorist is “loosey goosey”.

Indeed, newspaper revelations last week about the “kill list” showed the Obama administration defines a militant as any military-age male in the strike zone when its drone attacks.  That has raised the hackles of many who saw Obama as somehow more sophisticated on terrorism issues than his predecessor, George W Bush. But Guiora does not view it that way.  He sees Obama as the same as Bush, just much more enthusiastic when it comes to waging drone war.  “If Bush did what Obama has been doing, then journalists would have been all over it,” he said.

via The Observer.

 Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes a web log for The Atlantic, pointed out the problem with this.

Has there ever been a point since America’s inception when someone, somewhere, wasn’t plotting our downfall?  I have great difficulty perceiving a time when this won’t be true.  And so drone strategy comes to self-replicate.  We bomb your village.  You declare war on us for the bombing.  We deem you a terrorist and bomb again.  Rinse.  Repeat.

The Obama administration considers any military-age male in the vicinity of a bombing to be a combatant.  That is an amazing standard that shares an ugly synergy with the sort of broad-swath logic that we see employed in Stop and Frisk, with NYPD national spy network, with the killer of Trayvon Martin.

Policy is informed by the morality of a country. I think the repercussions of this unending era of death by silver bird will be profound.

via Ta-Nehisi Coates.


The future of targeted killling

October 3, 2011

There was a time when I thought “extrajudicial executions” were a defining characteristic of dictatorships—something that set Argentinian death squads and Soviet KGB assassins apart from the United States of America and other nations governed by the rule of law.

But President Obama has asserted the right to draw up death lists of enemies, based on secret criteria, and last week ordered the targeted killing last week of Anwar al-Awlaki, an anti-American Muslim cleric in Yemen.  If the ruler of a country can order the death of someone just on their own say-so, it is hard to imagine just what power they would not have.

How far will this doctrine be taken?  Here are milestones I look for.

  • Open killings by Russia, China or Iran of opponents living abroad in the name of fighting terrorism.
  • The first drone killing of an illegal immigrant crossing the Mexican border.
  • The first drone killing of an American citizen on American soil
  • The first killing on an individual because a computer algorithm determined the person fit the profile of a typical terrorist.
  • The use of killer drones in place of SWAT teams by American state and local police departments.
  • Outsourcing of the use of killer drones to private U.S. contractors.

When the first white American citizen is killed by a drone, any protest will be branded as “racist.”  After all, it will be said, if it is acceptable to kill scary brown Muslims by executive order, there can be no objection to killing scary white Christians, Jews or humanists.  The Ruby Ridge and Waco tragedies of the 1990s show that given the right circumstances, marginal white people can be targeted for killing.

I think we need to get rid of the notion of enemy combatant.  Enemy soldiers should be treated like soldiers; criminal terrorists should be treated like terrorists.  This will make the President’s task more difficult, but that is not too high a price to pay to protect fundamental liberties.