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Obama White Papers Rationalize Targeted Killing of Americans

Updated on May 28, 2013

In response to repeated Freedom of Information requests, the White House at long last released documents seeking to justify the Obama Administration's policy on targeted killing of American citizens abroad.

The Senate Intelligence Committee gained access to classified documents from the Department of Justice, which are surely far more damaging, on February 7, 2013.

For public consumption, however, NBC's Michael Issikoff was able to obtain & release 16-pages of White Papers laying out the basic tenets of the Obama Administration's legal framework for authority.


Imminent Threat

The White Paper attempts to lay out steps for identifying targets. Initially American "senior leaders of al-Qaeda" are described as candidates to be targeted & killed once an "Informed, high level U.S. Government official has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat...".

Imminent threat later devolves into ongoing threat, being that these individuals are "continually involved in planning...", or have, "recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat...", and thus,"does not require the United States to have clear evidence that an attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."

Execution of these individuals - as opposed to detainment and trial - is contingent upon "whether the capture remains feasible". Feasible is then described as causing "undue risk to U.S personnel." I would add that there is inherent risk in waking up in the morning.



Pressure has been mounting at least since September 30, 2011, when two American citizens - Samir Kahn & Anwar al-Awlaki - were targeted and killed by drone strike in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki was reported to have been a leader of AQAP (al-Qaeda Arabian Peninsula) and had trained both the failed underwear bomber & the Times Square bomber among others.

Two weeks later on October 14, 2011, his 16 year-old son who was born in Denver, Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki was killed along with some cousins in the same manner. White House Secretary Robert Gibbs explained that he should have had a "far more reasonable father".

“Due process and judicial process are not one and the same”, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted in March 2012, adding that, “Citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reassured us on February 5, 2013 that, "These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates & Attorney General Eric Holder
Defense Secretary Robert Gates & Attorney General Eric Holder | Source

While identity strikes akin to those levied upon al-Awlaki et al are said to have been successful, what is less discussed is the level of collateral damage imposed, and what level is acceptable. Collateral damage not only to nearby civilians, but that represented in the new recruits born of every strike.

Current US policy involves posthumously declaring all military-aged males as militants. We employ the signature strike, in which targets are chosen solely upon their pattern behavior while eschewing the hassle of identifying whom it is exactly that we are executing. This has resulted in the accidental bombings of wedding parties and funeral processions. Hopefully untrue and far more disturbing - and not implicitly endorsed - are reports of double-taps, where responders are hit in a second pass.

What is to stop these practices from becoming common place on our own soil?

The American public needs to be aware of what our government is doing in our name, so that we may examine the facts of events and their justifications, and thus be in a better position to determine whether particular policies are politically palatable to the populace. We need more transparency in these matters so that we can voice our approvals and concerns.

CIA Director John Brennan
CIA Director John Brennan | Source

According to CIA Director-nominee and drone-program architect John Brennan, "There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop." This claim is highly unlikely to be based in fact. Slightly less disconcerting is Brennan's assertion that there is “little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for A.Q.A.P.” He also served as CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, oversaw the - until recently secret - drone base there, and helped implement the "Yemen model".

Brennan is sure to hear a succession of queries concerning these and other policies for the duration of his confirmation hearings.


Pot, Meet Kettle

What I do find interesting is how many of the same conservatives who found no issue with President Bush regarding extra-judicial detainment, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation, illegal wiretapping and basically the entire Patriot Act - are now snickering at the lack of outrage among Democrats with Obama. I am one liberal who has no reservations with criticizing a Democratic President when the circumstances demand as such. I will say though, while these White Pages simply lay out the questionable legal justifications - we already knew the effects, embodied in the targeted killing of Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki.

Our biggest problem is that once these executive powers are defined and thus legitimized, there is little hope for rescinding them from future administrations. Hopefully I am proven wrong.


President Bush, Robert Gates, & Donald Rumsfeld
President Bush, Robert Gates, & Donald Rumsfeld | Source

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