White House Debating American Target

Protesters from the anti-war advocacy group Code Pink disrupted the confirmation hearings of John Brennan on Feb. 7, 2013. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Protesters from the anti-war advocacy group Code Pink disrupted the confirmation hearings of John Brennan on Feb. 7, 2013. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

By Dan Gettinger

On February 10, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration is considering targeting an American citizen with a drone. According to unnamed government sources, the target, whose identity remains a mystery, is a member of al-Qaeda and is “actively planning attacks against Americans overseas.” In a follow-up story for  the New York Times, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported that the target is based in Pakistan and that the Pentagon, the White House and the CIA have been debating this kill operation since the middle of 2013; an initial disagreement between the CIA and the Pentagon has delayed the decision, according to unnamed officials. If targeted, the suspect will be the first American to be killed in a drone strike since President Obama announced strict limits on the U.S. targeted killing operations in a speech at the National Defense University in May 2013.

To date, the U.S. has killed four American citizens with drones. Kamal Derwish, an American associated with the “Lackawanna Six,” was killed in a drone strike while he was accompanying senior al-Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi in Yemen in November 2002. “I can assure you that no constitutional questions are raised here,” said then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice after the attack. Three U.S. citizens–Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki–were killed in Yemen in September 2011. As with the case of American suspect currently under consideration, the Obama administration spent months debating the legal justifications and operational need to target al-Awlaki, a preacher and operative of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).

Little is known of the decision-making mechanics behind the targeting of American citizens and even less is known about this particular case. However, the information available on the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki and the public commentary surrounding that event does shed some light on the current debate within the administration and offers an example of what to expect as this case moves forward. According to unnamed government sources cited in a February 2013 Times story, the classified legal arguments for targeting Anwar al-Awlaki closely resembled the criteria that were outlined in the Department of Justice white paper on targeted killings. Despite the public awareness of the CIA’s targeted killing program and the inclusion of U.S. citizens as potential targets, questions remain as to whether the current procedures meet the requirements of due process.

Sources and Additional Reading:

  • New York Times reporters Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane wrote an in-depth article on the investigation into and targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki.

  • On March 5, 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the government’s right to target U.S. citizens in a speech at the Northwestern University School of Law. (C-SPAN)

  • The Department of Justice white paper on targeted killings conveys, in a general sense, the legal arguments for targeting Americans and foreign nationals overseas; it was released by NBC News on February 4, 2013.

  • In a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013, President Obama outlined new rules to be placed on the targeted killing program. (White House)

  • In “Due Process and Targeted Killing of Terrorists,” Afsheen John Radsan and Richard Wyman Murphy explore past national security court cases in search of greater accountability when enforcing due process rights. (SSRN)

  • In “Drones: A Power to Kill,” former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales argues for a greater level of judicial review of the targeted killing program. (Lawfare blog PDF)

  • The Lawfare blog offers an extensive library of research and analysis related to the legality of targeted killing.

  • Find, Fix, Finish by Aki Peritz and Eric Rosenbach examines the role of targeted killing within the American counterterrorism strategy as a tool for eliminating the al-Qaeda leadership.

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