The phrase is chilling. It’s government-speak, suggesting a near-surgical strike aimed at killing only the bad guys.
Make no mistake about it: The bad guys in this struggle are very bad. They don’t think twice about murdering thousands of civilians, and they would not hesitate to slit your throat or mine (especially mine).
Leaving questions of legality aside (we will get to that later), it’s not only the bad guys who are dying. The New York Times recounts the case of Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, who denounced al-Qaeda in a speech at a village mosque in Yemen. Al-Qaeda took notice, and a few days letter three members of the terrorist organization visited Jaber. As they talked under palm trees, an American drone unleashed a volley of missiles, incinerating them all, the bad guys along with Mr. Jaber and a nearby camel.
Another victim of a drone attack was 16-year-old Abdullahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki. Both father and son were American citizens, but the father was, without doubt, a traitor to his country, and President Obama hailed the killing of the senior al-Awlaki in a drone attack as “a major blow” to al-Qaeda. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki died two weeks later while searching for his father, victim of missiles fired from a drone. No one has suggested that the younger al-Awlaki was a terrorist.
There is always “collateral damage” in war. But now we are engaged in a new kind of war, battling an enemy that is ruthless and has no qualms about killing thousands of civilians. It’s an enemy that is not a nation-state, but a far-flung terrorist organization based in many countries, some of which are failed states. Al-Qaeda’s operatives do not hesitate to hide among civilians.
An operational argument can be made that given the nature of warfare today, targeted killings by drones may be the most effective method for protecting American security. Using drones obviates the need for putting American troops on the ground in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Mali, and who knows where else.
Operational justification ignores the legal and constitutional issues in the targeted killing program. The Obama administration, in a “white paper” obtained by NBC News, claims “lethal force” can be used against a United States citizen if “an informed, high-level official” determines that the individual is a senior member of al-Qaeda or an affiliate and poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”
The government’s claim of such sweeping executive power is audacious. The white paper denies congressional and judicial oversight of the killings, though the decision this week to allow House and Senate Intelligence committees access to classified documents on the program is a welcome small step in the right direction.
The definition of “imminent” is squishy at best: It is not necessary for an attack to be under way for a terrorist to be targeted; being a supposed terrorist seems justification enough.
Then there is the issue of killing American citizens such as al-Awlaki without judicial proceedings of any kind. As the American Civil Liberties Union notes: “Outside of armed conflict zones, the use of lethal force is strictly limited by international law and, when it comes to U.S. citizens, the Constitution.”
Attorney General Eric Holder provided a novel defense of targeted killings when he distinguished “due process’ from “judicial process.” “The Constitution guarantees,” Holder claimed, “due process, not judicial process.”
And John Brennan, in his confirmation hearings to head the CIA, assured Congress that, “The American people would be pleased to know that we’re very disciplined, very judicious in how we use these authorities — and we use these abilities as a last resort.”
President Obama taught constitutional law; he is aware of the problems inherent in extrajudicial killings. He is also president of the United States, charged with protecting and safeguarding Americans. Still, his administration authorizes killing targets in countries with whom the United States is not at war and killing Americans without judicial proceedings. It does this without, at least to date, the requisite oversight from other branches of government.
The issues are difficult; no one wants to endanger Americans, and al-Qaeda is a continuing threat to this nation’s security. But no one wants international law and the American Constitution ignored either. At the very least, the program of targeted killings needs greater accountability and transparency.