Human-rights advocates were floored on Monday night when NBC News published the details of an alarming Justice Department memo detailing the protocol for sending drones after United States citizens. It's not as if they hadn't suspected that the Obama administration's top-secret drone attack protocol contained some unsavory details. They just didn't expect them to be so frightfully broad. The scoop by Michael Isikoff is actually startling not for the details but rather for the lack of details. It's very vague about a decision-making process that puts American lives on the line. Put simply, the government believes that a lethal drone attack against an American citizen is justified if the targets are a) "senior operational leaders" of al Qaeda or b) "an associated force."
One of those two qualifiers is infinitely more worrisome than the other. Going after leaders of al Qaeda makes sense. That's what the War on Terror is all about, right? Breaking down networks of violent terrorists and keeping Americans safe. If an American happens to be caught up with al Qaeda, someone like Anwar al-Awlaki, then well… they shouldn't be surprised if they're getting chased by drones. At least that's what we've been told so far. How and why these attacks are carried out by drones is also detailed in the memo, but we'll get back to that in a second.
But what does "an associated force" mean? It seems like the guy who sells the terrorists bomb supplies would probably qualify, but what about the unknowing neighbor or the hired hand? Can we just kill them too in good conscience? Quite unfortunately, the government isn't exactly sure. The memo suggests that anyone who "present[s] an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States" qualifies for
assassination "a lawful killing in self defense," but that "does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future." In other words, an "informed, high-level" official can order the killing of any American citizen that was "recently" involved in threatening "activities." As Isikoff points out, the memo fails to define both of those terms.
"This is a chilling document," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it's easy to see how they could be manipulated." We've already seen some of this vague authority in action. A couple of years ago, The New York Times provided some insight into how subjective the process of deciding when to kill and when not to kill American citizens based on the vague outlines of a top secret memo that justified the killing of al-Awlaki. That document as well as this latest leak from the Justice Department (which is also mostly a vague outline) essentially combine to say that a lethal attack, likely by a drone, is the method of choice whenever a capture mission would put other American lives on the line. Again, the documents are very vague about where to draw the line.
Inevitably, this latest revelation into how the Obama administration runs the War on Terror behind closed doors leads to more questions than answers. How, for instance, does this justify the killing of al-Awlaki's 16-year-old, American-born son? Surely he was "associated" with his father, but not an "associated force." And how does the administration decide when to kill non-U.S. citizens? Previous reporting on the issue says that the government considers any military-aged male to be an insurgent, so it seems like pretty much anybody in the general region of Afghanistan or Pakistan could expect to find themselves in America's crosshairs. But again, we don't know because the Obama administration is keeping it completely secret, despite years worth of calls to disclose its decision-making process.
This could be the beginning of an enlightening time for those who demand answers about the government's shady drone program. On Thursday, John Brennan has his confirmation hearing where the Senate will decide whether or not he's fit to run the Central Intelligence Agency. Since he's more or less the architect of America's drone war, we're sure the Senators will have a question or two about this memo and, we hope, some other documents that we haven't seen yet — such as the full 50-page version of the memo, of which this latest leak merely contains a white-paper sketch. Because at least 11 Senators from both parties are already asking for more.
Update, Tuesday morning: What the White House Still Hasn't Said About Drones