How Obama Transformed an Old Military Concept So He Can Drone Americans
As a nation we have very long term questions to answer every day we fly drones with missiles or continue the long war. This is one of the big ones.
There’s a subtlety at work in the Justice Department framework. It takes imminence out of the context of something an enemy does, and places it into the context of a policymaker’s epistemic limitations. “The U.S. government may not be aware of all al-Qaida plots as they are developing and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur,” the white paper warns.
If there is a reasonable debate over what imminence means in an era of terrorism, and what standards ought to be accepted for defining it as an international norm, that framework preempts it. All that matters to justify a drone strike attack is for the U.S. to recognize it can’t be all-knowing. It’s the logical equivalent of the CIA’s signature strike, which target anonymous military-age males in areas where terrorists operate based on a presumption that their pattern of observed behavior is consistent with those of terrorists.
It would be one thing if Obama was talking about foreigners who enlist in al-Qaida. But he’s actually talking specifically about American citizens overseas who are “senior operational leader[s] of al-Qaida or its affiliated forces” — people whom the Constitution protects against the loss of life without due process of law. (The Justice Department stops short of claiming the government can take such lethal actions at home.) U.S. citizenship “does not immunize” such a person from reprisal. Here the white paper does not define what it means to be a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaida, let alone its “affiliated forces,” and instead asserts the applicability of Supreme Court precedent from World War II holding that U.S. citizens who joined the Axis can be treated as enemy belligerents. (My WIRED colleague David Kravets will have more on the specific legal claims Obama makes.)
To read this, you might think the U.S. faced an onslaught of treason. The data show otherwise. For the third straight year, U.S. Muslim involvement in terrorism declined, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, to the point where it’s assessed to be fewer than 10 cases in a million — none of which resulted in anyone’s death. The few such cases that do exist do not in any rigorous way describe “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida. The only American in al-Qaida’s senior cadre is a Californian metalhead turned propagandist named Adam Gadahn. The administration has asserted that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who incited terrorism in YouTube clips, was a senior operational leader of al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, but refuses to provide evidence for the claim. Not only did the U.S. kill Awlaki in a drone strike, it later killed his 16-year old son Abdulrahman, whom it has never publicly claimed was a senior operational leader of al-Qaida.