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Administration Officials Perform Some Very Public Handwringing Over Extrajudicial Drone Killing

from the the-eternal-martyrdom-of-the-executive-branch dept

The administration has sort of painted itself into a corner with its new rules on drone strikes. It’s apparently seeking to take out a US citizen who has joined al-Qaeda and is “actively plotting” against the US. Multiple issues have arisen, thanks to Obama’s better-late-than-never drone guidelines, which were issued last year to appease the many countries perturbed by the US government’s increasing reliance on drones to take out suspected terrorists.

The CIA drones watching him cannot strike because he’s a U.S. citizen and the Justice Department must build a case against him, a task it hasn’t completed

Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And President Barack Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.

Oddly, the DOJ hasn’t completed its case against the targeted American, despite officials (anonymous ones) claiming the man is a “facilitator” who has been “directly responsible” for attacks on Americans overseas. Flimsier cases have floated entire prosecutions (including many, many of the FBI’s homegrown terrorists). It must be the potential stripping of due process (no matter how meaningless that process has been in practice) holding the US back.

It may not even need a case. It may just need to offer sufficient justification for carrying out a death sentence without due process. That’s the sort of thing Rep. Mike Rogers seems to think the US should be doing anyway. His unwavering belief that the US is a country constantly besieged by attackers leaves no room for constitutional nuances like due process. This, along with “transparency” is referred to by Rogers as “red tape.”

Even as the “case” is being built, there are other concerns. As we just covered recently, the NSA aids in tracking down strike targets, but it’s doing so using (no big deal, it’s just) metadata, some of which is less than precise. Those who think they are targets are swapping SIM cards around as quickly as possible to thwart geolocation tracking, which ultimately means the target being killed may not be the person the NSA thinks he/she is.

But moving beyond Rogers’ histrionics and the NSA’s haystacks, these statements by anonymous government officials don’t look like much more than further appeasement. Rules were put in place to make other countries happier and this very public hand wringing looks for all the world like the administration stage-whispering “See how very complicated this is, and how restrained we’re being in response.” Admittedly, stagecraft is a large part of politics, but this particular incident is notable for its overacting.

The government has killed four Americans with drone strikes since 2009, so this open-air discussion has less to do with concerns about following proper steps than it does with letting unhappy foreign nations know how seriously we’re suddenly taking our targeted killing responsibilities. The limitations on drone strikes were a long time coming, and it has taken a sustained uproar over several years to get them implemented. The last time the administration spent any time considering the implications of its hands-off approach to extrajudicial killing was towards the end of Obama’s first term in 2012, when there was the momentary concern that The Bad Guys (the other party) might have the same unfettered access and authority.

As much as the unnamed American might be deserving of punishment for his attacks on Americans, the administration should stick to its self-imposed rules and follow the processes it implemented. And the least it could do is follow the rules without carrying on in public, trying to conjure up some sort of sympathy for the difficult decisions it faces.

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Comments on “Administration Officials Perform Some Very Public Handwringing Over Extrajudicial Drone Killing”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

How is this difficult?

If they don’t have enough evidence to build a case with, dropping a bomb on the guy, potentially killing innocent people in the process shouldn’t even remotely be considered. If you don’t have enough evidence to convict someone in a court of law, you sure as hell don’t have enough to justify flat out murdering them.

Also, that double-standard hypocrisy is showing it’s head again, the fact that the country the person is in refuses to allow US military action should be the end of things, no matter how much it would grate to let someone like that ‘go’, as you can bet if another country killed off someone in the US, someone they were ‘sure’ was guilty, via bomb, everyone from the president on down would be screaming about how it was an ‘unprovoked act of aggression’, and would be demanding the heads of those responsible.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: How is this difficult?

If they don’t have enough evidence to build a case with, dropping a bomb on the guy, potentially killing innocent people in the process shouldn’t even remotely be considered.
Even if the DO have enough evidence to build a case with, dropping a bomb on the guy, potentially killing innocent people in the process shouldn’t even remotely be considered.

What is it with the US? Frankly targeted killing of any kind especially bombing someone other than as part of a proper declared war is itself terrorist behaviour and should not be considered by a nation that wants to think of itself as civilised.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: How is this difficult?

How about ‘No’?

Trying someone in court when they’re not there to defend themself is ridiculous enough, doing the same thing when the death penalty is on the table is a slap in the face to the whole concept of justice.

Even then, he’s still in a country that refuses to allow US military action, which bombing someone would sure as hell qualify as, so unless you’d be fine with foreign countries trying people in the US without them ever setting foot in the court room, and then sending over people to execute them should they be found guilty, that fact alone should make this a complete dead end.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think I have to disagree with you on the reason that the new drone rules were implemented.

There was no reason to implement them until Obama came up for re-election. Suddenly he was scared that Romney would have the same ability to just continue them as he saw fit, providing Obama lost. I seriously believe this was the main reason why the new rules were put into effect and why drone strikes were turned over to the military from the CIA’s hands.

Obama has several times made mention of the belief he is some how more moral than others who could step into power after him. He has what appears to be this huge blind spot that somehow he is an exception to absolute power corrupting absolutely, or at least that is the fodder he attempts to feed the public.

Anonymous Coward says:

Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him.

That should makes him immune to drone strikes, unless the USA is going to engage in terrorist tactics. The USA will respect the sovereignty of another country … won’t they. Or will they rely in the fact that th foreign country cannot realistically declare war on the USA.

Glenn says:

Didn't the WSJ imply that the NSA didn't get location data

Even at the time the WSJ story seemed a bit fishy, like it was fabricated by people on the inside or something, but anyway, here’s the link:


If you read it one of the many things they imply is that the NSA is constrained because they have to remove the location data from the cell phone records before they incorporate them into their database.

Now clearly this was with regards to US cell phone providers I guess, and obviously it isn’t true about the location data they get from cell phone providers outside the US? Certainly if they’re targeting drones based on cell phone location data they clearly aren’t always removing the location information.

Anyway, I think it makes the whole WSJ article sound a little fishy.

CanadianByChoice says:

Yet Another Terrorist Plot Foiled

One thing that has cropped up over and over – it’s really easy to make any kind of claim you want if you – for national security reason – cannot also give any (verifiable) information about it.
“I’ve personally stopped 43 terrorist plots – that’s one per day – targeting locations in [Canada, the USA, GB, or insert nation of choice] so far this year, but the details are all classified, so I can’t tell you anything else about them”. Prove I didn’t!
This is no different.
From my perspective, “can’t say because it’s classified” equals “I made it up but you can’t prove it”.

Anonymous Coward says:

So let me get this straight...

“Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And President Barack Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.”

They don’t want US military action on its soil, so their workaround is to enact military strikes through a non-military entity and say “You said no military action. We bombed you without our military. That is okay, right?”

Seriously? I mean really. SERIOUSLY?! That would be hilarious if it wasn’t actually real.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: So let me get this straight...

I think you are mixing a couple of different issues. In stating the country refuses to allow US military actions they are referring primarily to troups coming in to hunt for the terrorists. Apart from shooting the drones down, there isn’t a whole lot they can do about the drones flying over even if they don’t like it especially if they don’t know when they are. Drone operations can be quite stealthy especially if the nation lacks modern air defense technology.

With regards to the CIA vs. military statement. The military still operates the drones. Always has. It’s just the CIA before had the authority to order and command the operations which apparently isn’t the case anymore. So what they are saying now is the military has to through it’s normal course of operations encounter them and target them in order to kill them which would more likely than not be a battlefield situation. It’s not a matter so much of weasel wording an excuse to justify it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: So let me get this straight...

Of course the president can still order the military to undertake a strike operation based on CIA provided intelligence, but that takes time and has more direct responsibility tied to the president since the specific operation has to be directly authorized so the likelihood of political fallout for the president is much more severe if a mistake is made than if it was just anonymous person in charge at the CIA making the decision to act on intelligence. It also takes a little longer for the intelligence to be evaluated and the operation planned increasing the likelihood that the window of opportunity will close. This is the what Roger’s is referring to as “red tape” but increasing accountability and safeguards against making mistakes that harm innocent people is a good thing.

One other note, yesterday Democracy Now also carried an extensive report on this story which carried this quote from the AP:

“one U.S. official said the Defense Department was divided over whether the man is dangerous enough to merit the potential domestic fallout of killing an American without charging him with a crime or trying him, and the potential international fallout of such an operation in a country that has been resistant to U.S. action. Another of the U.S. officials said the Pentagon did ultimately decide to recommend lethal action.”

So the Pentagon really isn’t concerned at all with whether these actions are legal or not or whether anyone’s rights are violated or not. They are only concerned with whether the action is worth the backlash they will receive for taking it and ultimately they have decided that the squeeze is worth the juice. This is a CRIMINAL mindset. Is the risk of being caught and punished worth what we get out of breaking the law? This is also EXACTLY why there needs to be effective oversight and accountability for these sorts of actions and underscores the reason transparency here is so important.

btr1701 (profile) says:


This is ridiculous. If someone’s in a hostile foreign country, plotting attacks on America, Americans, or American troops in a theater of war, then that person is a valid and legitimate military target regardless of the passport he’s carrying in his back pocket.

Requiring soldiers on the battlefield to make evidentiary determinations or run out and quickly read the enemy his Miranda warning before engaging him is something out of a Monty Python sketch.

And what the hell is the relevance of objecting to drones? Why does it make any difference whether a drone drops a bomb or whether that same bomb is dropped by a fighter jet piloted by person? The end result is exactly the same. This fixation some people have on drone use is bizarre.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Drones

From the context of the article, it appears that the country he is in doesn’t qualify as a “battlefield” or “war zone” that allows the military to take action on their own without being directly authorized by the president. The CIA can still operate but since they no longer have the authority to take such actions, all they can do is report back to the president. And since this location isn’t a battlefield, battlefield rules of engagement don’t apply, instead it qualifies as a police action since he is a US citizen and for such actions to occur, citizens have a right to due process under the law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Drones

And you are right to a certain extent about the fixation on drones, however prior to drones existing, you had two ways of performing an air strike – manned aircraft and cruise missles. Cruise missles are expensive, take a little while to get there once fired such that the target has time to change without the possibility of aborting the strike. Manned air strikes put a pilot at risk of being shot down, captured, interrogated, and/or killed. Drones are much less expensive, less risk, and equally if not more effective than a manned aircraft. So naturally since the adoption of drones air strikes in general have become much more common which is why there has been an increase in the alarm over their use and the potential abuse of their use.

Anonymous Coward says:

On Bombardment:

Really, any form of shelling neutral countries on ‘police’ grounds is immoral, completely apart from the idea of executing people without legal protections. Any form of assassination, military or ‘not-actually-military’ invasion or artillery fire (whether from drones, manned bombers, naval shelling, mortar fire, cruise missiles, ICBMs, satilite-dropped weights, ‘not-actually-touching-you-and-anyways-you-can’t-prove-I-did-it’ proposed airborne energy weapons, etc.) upon a non-consenting nation is a pretty clear act of war, regardless of how much the target may or may not deserve it, how rigorously due process was followed, or how careful you are to prevent collateral damage.

Add to the mix that even those three (insufficient) ‘mitigating factors’ are frequently lacking in the American assassination programs…

Law Bender 101 says:

on Capital-hill Punishment

Holy f*ckin shitballs guys:

“the administration should stick to its self-imposed rules and follow the processes it implemented”

The rules & processes are: US Laws & party Policy Positions.

We cannot say your Commander In Chief is performing “extrajudicial” killings, because Obama isn’t on trail (charged, accused) of breaking any specific Law, or Policy.

What we *can* say is that Elected Officials have been law-making IN SECRET, which they are allowed to do — unless your lawyer wants to take on the feds & argue differently.

And we can *also* say that the 1st Rule of Policy-Making, is that you hire amazing legal advisers so you’re President can walk right through a mine-field of Laws to get “Due Process” waived & get that list of SECRETLY living-accused (and GOT NO TIME to seek an arrest-warrant etc, dont you know WHO I AM FFS) “bad” men dead.

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