Yesterday, President Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, gave an extensive speech defending the use of automated drones to target and kill suspected terrorists without due process - including Americans.
Brennan listed the main criteria the administration uses to unilaterally decide who to target and assassinate. Yet, the one American we know was targeted and killed by a drone, suspected Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, meets NONE of Brennan's purported criteria.
(1) Brennan's first criterion is 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 futureis not enough to warrant a drone strike. There is no credible evidence that al-Awlaki did anything more than generally advancing propaganda and indicating a desire to support al-Qaeda. A desire to support a terrorist group is not a particularized plan of attack. The justifications for assassinating al-Awlaki that the Obama administration fed the media were:
* the Underwear Bomber stayed in Awlaki's house while the attack was planned;
* Awlaki helped write the Underwear Bomber's "martyrdom" video statement;
* Awlaki introduced the Underwear Bomber to a man who designed the explosive device;and
* the Underwear Bomber was inspired by Awlaki's extremist videos
None of these justifications constitute a particularized plan to attack the U.S. In fact, all of them happened in the past, despite the fact that Brennan claimed yesterday that drones strikes are not about "punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance."
(2) Brennan then 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.No one has ever asserted that al-Awlaki was himself an operative, only that he supported operations through his propaganda.
(3) Brennan's third criterion is 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 and advancing abhorrent principles a "unique operational skill."
There is no First Amendment exception for propaganda. If the First Amendment did not apply to propaganda, then the KKK, neo-Nazi groups and any number of Americans who advance hateful messages would be devoid of First Amendment protection.
Moreover, if propaganda is enough to get you on the drone target list, then - judging from his speech yesterday - Brennan would qualify, which demonstrates that lack of credibility to Brennan's criteria 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.
Al-Awlaki does not meet Brennan's supposed criteria, and civilian deaths are well above what the Obama administration has claimed. While Brennan claims that "it pains us and we regret it deeply" when drones kill innocent civilians, no one shed a tear when a drone killed al-Awlaki's innocent 16-year old AMERICAN son.
Brennan's speech also talked the talk on transparency:
Staying true to our values as a nation also includes upholding the transparency upon which our democracy depends. A few months after taking office, the President travelled to the National Archives where he discussed how national security requires a delicate balance between secrecy and transparency. He pledged to share as much information as possible with the American people “so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable.” He has consistently encouraged those of us on his national security team to be as open and candid as possible as well.Sounds great, but the Obama administration is not walking the walk. Despite Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder speechifying on the drone program to defend it, when advocates request documents on the program - like the legal memo "authorizing" the assassination of a U.S. citizen without due process - the Obama administration's position in court has consistently been to rely on the "Glomar doctrine" that it "can neither confirm nor deny" the existence of the drone program.
The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer and Nathan Wessler articulated earlier this week how the Obama administration's position has little to do with transparency and everything to do with releasing information when politically advantageous while keeping potentially controversial or embarrassing information secret:
The [Glomar] doctrine has also been invoked since 9/11 to shape public debate. A slew of administration officials have already spoken about the targeted killing program to reporters, both anonymously and on the record, and President Obama himself answered questions about the program during an online town hall. Thus the Glomar doctrine is not serving to keep the targeted killing program a secret, but rather to control which facts about the program are made public, and when. Not coincidentally, the C.I.A.’s reliance on the Glomar doctrine also makes it more difficult for individuals injured by the agency’s counterterrorism policies to challenge those policies in court. . . .The Obama administration's selective release of information around drones shows the many exceptions to Obama's wonderful sounding rhetoric on national security issues. Those of us who took those words to heart were again disappointed yesterday listening to former National Counterterrorism Center Director under G.W. Bush and now top counterterrorism adviser under Obama discussing the Obama administration's unilateral targeting and assassinating of Americans without charge or trial.
The C.I.A.’s manifest abuse of the Glomar doctrine undermines public confidence in the classification system, distorts public debate about issues of extraordinary importance, and enables an agency with sweeping authority — including the authority to kill — to operate with insufficient public oversight.