The Administration’s Half-Striptease of Anwar al-Awlaki’s Rotting Corpse

This article, which claims the “Obama administration is planning to reveal publicly the legal reasoning behind its decision to kill” Anwar al-Awlaki, also reveals that Administration debates about whether to do so likened such necessary transparency to a “Full Monty.”

It came down to what Denis McDonough, the deputy national-security adviser, cheekily called the “half Monty” versus the “full Monty,” after the British movie about a male striptease act.

Though it looks like, instead of real disclosure, the Administration is mooning us. They’ve decided to provide some of the legal argument–which Charlie Savage already gave us. But none of the actual proof that Awlaki was what they have claimed in anonymous quotes to journalists: an operational leader.

An early draft of Holder’s speech identified Awlaki by name, but in a concession to concerns from the intelligence community, all references to the al Qaeda leader were removed. As currently written, the speech makes no overt mention of the Awlaki operation, and reveals none of the intelligence the administration relied on in carrying out his killing. (White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment).

This is simply an asinine compromise. We all know the Administration killed Awlaki. We all know the Administration used a drone strike to do so. Savage’s article surely provides far more detail on the legal argument than they’ll give in a speech.

The problem–the problem that strikes at the very heart of democratic accountability–is that the Administration plans to keep secret the details that would prove (or not) that Awlaki was what the Administration happily claims he is under the veil of anonymity, all while claiming that precisely that information is a state secret.

The Administration seems to be planning on making a big speech on counterterrorism–hey! it’s another opportunity to brag again about offing Osama bin Laden!–without revealing precisely those details necessary to distinguish this killing, and this country, from that of an unaccountable dictator.

The CIA seems to have dictated to our democratically elected President that he can’t provide the kind of transparency necessary to remain a democracy. We can kill you–they appear to be planning to say–and we’ll never have to prove that doing so was just. You’ll just have to trust us!

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

12 replies
  1. Rob says:

    YES !
    Two observations :
    1) :

    You’ll just have to trust us!

    This is the core principle ; much of the rest flows directly from it – the assault on civil liberties, the idea that there is a panel of experts who bathe in specialized, privileged and secret knowledge and who therefore are uniquely qualified to make decisions that the rest of us are not in order to protect us from dangers, the idea that most of us should not meddle in these affairs. This is what permits much of what is happening to happen, and why a general, protracted war against a vague, nebulous enemy is so valuable to those siphoning off the nation’s wealth in order to increase their own power and authority.
    In short, democracy in these matters (and increasingly in a whole host of other matters for US elites) is to be avoided at all costs, as you allude to.
    2) It seems that a skilfully worded legal rational can be provided to justify just about anything the administration would like, and therefore there is no reason to believe we would learn anything new once it is revealed. Part of the problem is the belief (nay, religion, almost) that the issue of state assassination should even be presented as solely a legal problem in the first place, and that the legal paradigm takes precedence over all others (as opposed to whether it is moral, wise, what the probable consequences are, etc.). This basically opens the door to all kinds of atrocities as long as you have your silver-tongued scholars who are talented enough to retroactively concoct a good enough memo – or, as Madar says in the article cited below, something which “passes the smell test”.

    How Liberals Kill :

  2. Clarence Johnson says:

    I have the sneaking suspicion that when we get the evidence, finally, it will be of about the strength and of the same quality as that which was used to accuse the Chicago 7. It’s an open question whether the rest of history will judge Obama the way they’ll judge Neocons–out of touch, jumping at shadows, and in the end, corny. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if it ends up that way.

  3. MadDog says:

    And btw, via Reuters this morning:

    “U.S. drone attacks kill at least 4 in Pakistan: officials

    …In Monday’s attacks, two missiles hit a vehicle in the village of Degan, and another two struck a house in nearby Mohammedkhel village.

    Intelligence officials said the strike on the vehicle killed mostly Turkmen, who were possibly members of al Qaeda. There may be more casualties, the officials added…”

    Now it seems if you’re only possibly al Qaeda, or mostly Turkmen, you too can “Smile for the Camera and Kiss the Drone™”.

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    The administration probably rationalizes that they would never misuse these powers. But future presidents may feel “forced” to use those powers, and on we slide towards a fascist dictatorship.

    At the root of some of the “War on Terror” abuses was the slamming the Bush administration got for “failing to connect the dots” that might have prevented the attack. Most of us don’t remember the pressure the Bush administration was under. So Bush did what he often did when cornered: he tried to cheat. That’s where the torture came in.

    I’m not really defending the Bush administration here. What they did was wrong, and the result of an administration packed with weak characters. But the principle is this: Give a weak administration the powers of a police state, and next time they screw up, fear will drive them to use those powers. Therefore its better not to legalize those powers.

    Unfortunately, the Courts and the Congress are shirking their Constitutional duties to restrain executive over-reach. And that is partially due to the damned AUMF.

    Bob in AZ

  5. bmaz says:

    the chief of external operations

    What the fuck is that? We don’t know, and they will not say. And, even if they did, they would not release the facts to support that Awlaki was that functionary. Here is what we do know, in the only known evaluation of evidence against Awlaki, they could not find enough against him to even get an indictment – and he was already propagandizing and inciting. The government says they have facts to demonstrate he Awlaki went “operational”, but refuse to detail even a sketch of what that is. The fact that a couple of mopes like undie bomber or Hasan either talked to Awlaki or emailed with him is not enough (at least to my sensibility).

    Regarding the claim that this is going to be the second coming of the GREAT KOH SPEECH, keep in mind that that speech by Koh was a fucking joke. The discussion there was almost an afterthought and did not support or justify squat.

    But, hey, Dan Klaidman has already bought off on the dog and pony bullshit, no reason the rest of the steno press will not too.

  6. Gitcheegumee says:

    Who needs transparency or deniabilty ,or even accountability , when events can be made to disappear? Oh, consider the possibilites….

    Pentagon Scientists Use ‘Time Hole’ to Make Events Disappear
    January 22, 2012

    Source: Wired

    Soldiers could one day conduct covert operations in complete secrecy, now that Pentagon-backed physicists have figured out how to mask entire events by distorting light.

    A team at Cornell University, with support from Darpa, the Pentagon’s out-there research arm, managed to hide an event for 40 picoseconds (those are trillionths of seconds, if you’re counting). They’ve published their groundbreaking research in this week’s edition of the journal Nature.

    This is the first time that scientists have succeeded in masking an event, though research teams have in recent years made remarkable strides in cloaking objects. Researchers at the University of Texas, Dallas, last year harnessed the mirage effect to make objects vanish. And in 2010, physicists at the University of St. Andrews made leaps towards using metamaterials to trick human eyes into not seeing what was right in front of them.

    Masking an object entails bending light around that object. If the light doesn’t actually hit an object, then that object won’t be visible to the human eye.

    Where events are concerned, concealment relies on changing the speed of light. Light that’s emitted from actions, as they happen, is what allows us to see those actions happen. Usually, that light comes in a constant flow. What Cornell researchers did, in simple terms, is tweak that ongoing flow of light — just for a mere iota of time — so that an event could transpire without being observable.

    Read More…
    Pentagon Scientists Use ‘Time Hole’ to Make Events … – Wired

    Jan 4, 2012 – Soldiers could one day conduct covert operations in complete secrecy, now that Pentagon-backed physicists have figured out how to mask …

  7. Michael Drew says:

    We can kill you–they appear to be planning to say–and we’ll never have to prove that doing so was just. You’ll just have to trust us!

    I didn’t realize this wasn’t the proposition anyway. The notion is this is war; governments don’t prove that killing who they kill in war is just. Including citizens. If he’s merely a traitor and not a person at war with us, then he needs to be arrested. If he’s not actively engaged in hostilities, he can’t be killed. If there’s no actual war, he can’t be killed. But if there’s a war and he’s a combatant, he can be killed. Go after one of those premises, don’t just say, ‘They don’t mind just saying they don’t have to prove anything to us!” No, they don’t.

  8. GKJames says:

    @bmaz: had the same reaction to “chief of external operations.” Two thoughts: First, the guiding lights saw reference to “operations” imperative in order to legitimize killing what needed to be a terrorist, rather than the p.r. guy/preacher/rabble rouser/wordsmith that Awlaki was. To the extent that shame still exists in these circles, it’s that killing a talker comes awfully close to killing someone for little more than having objectionable views. Problem was, Awlaki was impressively persuasive in the expression of those views and, in particular, his articulate, pointed criticism of US policy toward Muslim countries.

    Second, as part of the “corporatization” of virtually everything in public life, government mouthpieces are trapped in boardroom-speak, the twin essences of which are marketing and evasion of liability. And banality. Which means the best they could come up with is converting Awlaki from the equivalent of “chief information [or communications] officer” to “chief of external operations,” and even then only of an “al-Qaeda affiliate.”

    Pathetic, really. And all made up as they go along to rationalize to themselves the execrable. And to save their legal ass.

  9. MadDog says:

    @Michael Drew: I think if you read most, if not all, of the posts about this subject here in the past at Emptywheel, you would come to a different understanding about the issues regarding Anwar al-Awlaki.

    But to help you shortcut that process, I’ll try to simply what has been written here in the past.

    1) The 5th Amendment of the US Constitution states that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. (My Bold)

    2) Anwar al-Awlaki was a US citizen by birth (as was his just turned 16 year old son later killed by another US drone in Yemen).

    3) Anwar al-Awlaki was never charged with a crime by US authorities.

    4) The Due Process language of the 5th Amendment typically has meant that you must be given a trial and be convicted before the government can put you to death.

    5) There is no declaration of war against Yemen.

    6) The GWOT (Global War On Terrorism) depends a great deal, if not entirely, on the 9/11 AUMF (Authoriztion to Use Military Force), and is specifically focused on those who attacked the US on 9/11. That would be al Qaeda.

    7)Anwar al-Awlaki was supposedly a member of AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), but AQAP didn’t even exist when the 9/11 AUMF was put in place. A number of legal experts have argued that this therefore means that there is no legal underpinning for acts of war against people who did not attack the US on 9/11. They are arguably possibly just right.

    8) In any event, back on the Due Process path, the US government appears to be saying, and acting upon, the premise that the Executive branch is the sole judge, jury and executioner of anyone it deems to be a threat. Including US citizens who have not been charged with any crime.

    The issues as I understand them are that the US government refuses to disclose any secret evidence it purports to have against Anwar al-Awlaki, refuses to disclose what if any hostile acts Anwar al-Awlaki undertook (and by the way, most if not all of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons and suchlike are protected Free Speech under the 1st Amendment even if we don’t like them or disagree with them), refuses to disclose any secret law it uses to negate Anwar al-Awlaki’s rights to Due Process as required under the US Constitution, refuses to admit that US Constitution prohibits any branch of the US government from denying Due Process, and refuses to acknowledge that the 9/11 AUMF could not possibly authorize war against something that didn’t even exist on 9/11.

    This is just a summary of what I think the issues are.

  10. Michael Drew says:

    Mad Dog, IOW, you are making the case I say EW needs to make (and, of course, has… my point is just that I think that the simplifying sloganeering detracts from rather than clarifies the case to be made).

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