Secret Al-Awlaki Memo and U.S. Drone Program Raise Serious Concerns

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In a prescient article for Mother Jones ten months ago, Nick Baumann wrote:

Sometime during Barack Obama's term in office, there's a good chance an American citizen will be killed on the president's orders. Perhaps it will be Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico-born Al Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen. [...] And when that person meets his fiery end, it's quite possible that the American people still won't have a good sense of exactly why the President believes he has the legal authority to authorize the killing of US citizens without charge or trial. (Emphasis added.)


He was right on almost every count. Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike over Yemen less than two weeks ago, and the Justice Department did draft a classified memo giving legal justification (in advance) for the president's "kill" order. But in an article yesterday, New York Times provides a little insight into exactly what legal authority the memo says the government has.


The secret document provided the justification for acting despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, protections in the Bill of Rights and various strictures of the international laws of war, according to people familiar with the analysis. [...] The legal analysis, in essence, concluded that Mr. Awlaki could be legally killed, if it was not feasible to capture him, because intelligence agencies said he was taking part in the war between the United States and Al Qaeda and posed a significant threat to Americans, as well as because Yemeni authorities were unable or unwilling to stop him.


In other words: This is war so all those nice, cozy civil liberties al-Awlaki may have thought he had—out the window! The memo was apparently careful to restrict the parameters to the specifics of his case, to avoid setting too dangerous and expansive a precedent. But that's not keeping Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times's public editor, from calling for more robust investigations into the program: "I believe that cracking the government’s silence, specifically on its legal rationale, should be a high priority for the paper."

Brisbane also floats the idea (proffered to him by another journalist) of a drone-specific beat. This may not be such a bad idea really, considering that drones are not simply another weapon in the military's arsenal, but a new—and incredibly far-ranging—tool enabling the government to carry out targeted killings with little to no oversight. While it is perhaps not a surprise, especially in this post-9/11 world, that the U.S. government would resort to assassinations, such tactics are simply too close to many of our security state nightmares for real comfort. And with major expansions of the drone program expected in the coming years, this is a topic best not left to secretive policy makers huddled in the conference rooms and bunkers at Langley.

Obama's Drone Memo Dilemma [Mother Jones]
Secret U.S. Memo Made Legal Case to Kill a Citizen [NYT]
The Secrets of Government Killing [NYT]