I was just on DEMOCRACY NOW! with Scott Shane, one of the journalists who wrote yesterday's New York Times front-page, top-of-the-fold, 3600-word article echoing the government's recent narrative about how the Muslim cleric we droned, Anwar al-Alwaki, is an al Qaeda "operative," not a propagandist.

On DEMOCRACY NOW!, I pointed out that the government only recently began calling Awlaki "operational," in a transparent attempt to shoehorn him into one of the criteria for being drone-worthy.  I criticized the Times for amplifying this new narrative, based on one-sided, selective, ex post facto disclosures by former and current anonymous government officials to the paper.      

Watch my entire interview on DEMOCRACY NOW! here:

While the New York Times said in 2010, and yesterday, that Alwaki may be linked to some terrorist plots, that is not the same as being "operational." Also, as the ACLU pointed out, allegations are not evidence. Allegations cannot be tested in a court of law because, well, the target is dead. So all we can do now is convict him in the New York Times.

And what does "operational" mean? It does not mean "linked in various ways" to bad guys, a guilt-by-association argument that the Times appears to endorse. Nor does it mean serving as the inspiration for (but not involvement in) the Ft. Hood shooter and thr Times Square would-be bomber, as the Times included in its arsenal of allegations yesterday.

The definition of "operational"--according to Obama's top counterterrorism advisor and now CIA director John Brennan--is as follows:

(1) Brennan's first criterion was that the target have some particularized plan to attack the U.S. insisting that

. . . the mere possibility that a member of al-Qa’ida might try to attack us at some point in the future
is not enough to warrant a drone strike.

The recently-disclosed white paper is seemingly even stricter than Brennan's April 2012 speech: the person must pose

an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.
There is no credible evidence that al-Awlaki did anything more than generally advance propaganda, praise people who engaged in terrorist acts, and indicate a desire to support al-Qaeda. A desire to support a terrorist group is not a particularized plan of attack. None of the justifications for assassinating al-Awlaki put forth by the Obama administration, e.g., he made a martyrdom video, constitute a particularized or imminent plan to attack the U.S. In fact, all of them happened in the past, despite the fact that Brennan claimed recently that drones strikes are not about "punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance."

(2) Brennan also suggested that a drone assassination would be a appropriate if an

. . .individual is himself an operative—in the midst of actually training for or planning to carry out attacks against U.S. interests.
The "white paper" said the individual must be
a senior operational leader of al-Qu'ida or an associated force of al-Qu'ida--that is, an al-Qu'ida leader actively engaged in planning operations to kill Americans.
Until the past few months, no one had ever asserted that al-Awlaki was himself a member of Al Qaeda, much less an operative, only that he supported the organization through his propaganda.

(3) Brennan's third criterion was that

the individual possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack.
Al-Awlaki fails to meet this criterion as well. Since when is producing hateful videos, advancing abhorrent principles, and suggesting someone detonate a bomb in U.S. airspace a "unique operational skill"?

There is no First Amendment exception for propaganda. If propaganda is enough to get you on the drone target list, then the makers of Zero Dark Thirty would qualify and so would the authors of yesterday's article, which demonstrates the lack of credibility of this criterion and the problem with assassinating American citizens without due process. Despite the Obama administration's constant reassurance of, "Just trust us, we are being careful," the facts speak otherwise.

The newly-released cold, calculating, chilling white paper only makes the stunning scope and reach of Executive authority even scarier. The Times tries to distance the authors from being in the John Yoo category--because after scouring case law they found an obscure district court opinion from 15 years ago in which a judge said the overseas-killing law didn't apply to a woman who killed her baby in Japan.  That's almost as shoddy as John Yoo neglecting to mention countervailing Supreme Court authority.

Like its "Kill List" story in June, the New York Times once again gives the government a platform to justify its assassination of 3 U.S. citizens without charge, counsel, or judicial review. That's propaganda disguised as a newspaper article.

Read other great statements and articles on this topic by the ACLU and CCR, Marcy Wheeler, and Kevin Gosztola.

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