Shorter Jeh Johnson: 16-Year Old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki Legitimate Military Target

I’ll have more to say about this speech Jeh Johnson gave at Yale later. But for the moment I wanted to unpack the logic of his comments about targeted killing.

As part of his claim that drone strikes are just like past military killing, Johnson boasted of the precision of our current weapons.

I want to spend a moment on what some people refer to as “targeted killing.”  Here I will largely repeat Harold’s much-quoted address to the American Society of International Law in March 2010.  In an armed conflict, lethal force against known, individual members of the enemy is a long-standing and long-legal practice.  What is new is that, with advances in technology, we are able to target military objectives with much more precision, to the point where we can identify, target and strike a single military objective from great distances.

Should the legal assessment of targeting a single identifiable military objective be any different in 2012 than it was in 1943, when the U.S. Navy targeted and shot down over the Pacific the aircraft flying Admiral Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese navy during World War Two, with the specific intent of killing him?  Should we take a dimmer view of the legality of lethal force directed against individual members of the enemy, because modern technology makes our weapons more precise?  As Harold stated two years ago, the rules that govern targeting do not turn on the type of weapon system used, and there is no prohibition under the law of war on the use of technologically advanced weapons systems in armed conflict, so long as they are employed in conformity with the law of war.  Advanced technology can ensure both that the best intelligence is available for planning operations, and that civilian casualties are minimized in carrying out such operations.

He then goes on to argue that our targeted killing is not assassination because the targets are all legitimate military targets.

On occasion, I read or hear a commentator loosely refer to lethal force against a valid military objective with the pejorative term “assassination.”  Like any American shaped by national events in 1963 and 1968, the term is to me one of the most repugnant in our vocabulary, and it should be rejected in this context.  Under well-settled legal principles, lethal force against a valid military objective, in an armed conflict, is consistent with the law of war and does not, by definition, constitute an “assassination.”

Well then. If our weapons have that much precision–if the intelligence that goes into such strikes is so good we can strike individuals with precision–and we only hit military targets, it must follow that we knew 16-year old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was present when we killed him with a drone strike. And we must have considered the teenager a legitimate military target.

Because of course the United States would never assassinate its teenagers, would it?

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.

22 replies
  1. bmaz says:

    Also, Samir Khan must then have been a “legitimate military target”, because, of course, there is not a chance in hell the US did not know fully that he was in the kill zone when they took out Anwar Awlaki.

    I still will not concede for a second that a proper case has been made that Awlaki was “operational” and “militarized”; but there is simply no case as to Khan. We would not be assassinating journalists simply because we do not agree with what they cover and write would we?

  2. Benjamin Franklin says:

    By contrast, “group think” among lawyers is dangerous, because it makes us lazy and complacent in our thinking, and can lead to bad results. Likewise, shutting your eyes and ears to the legal dissent and concerns of others can also lead to disastrous consequences.

    Is this the extent of Johnson’s redemptive, self-awareness?

  3. lysias says:

    I’ve often heard what the U.S. Navy did to Admiral Yamamoto (or, for that matter, what British intelligence did to Obergruppenführer Heydrich) called “assassination”.

  4. jerryy says:

    @bmaz: “We would not be assassinating journalists simply because we do not agree with what they cover and write would we?”

    You are good at asking rhetorical questions yourself :^)

    “If it was the case that President Bush wanted to bomb Al Jazeera in what is after all a friendly country, it speaks volumes and it raises questions about subsequent attacks that took place on the press that wasn’t embedded with coalition forces”.

    or maybe:

    Of course there are the less obvious reasons for the killings:

  5. Starbuck says:

    The US declared a state of war between US and Japan. So going after Yamamoto was valid, although I wonder had he been allowed to live would he have been a rational voice for a moderate position?

    But I digress.

    Where is the declaration of war which enables such tactics in this case?

    The slippery slope, again, or perhaps, still.

  6. jerryy says:

    @thatvisionthing: I rechecked them, they seem to be working — them, they since I put up two comments with links. Which one are you having troubles with?

    [Sometimes when you get that spinning wheel, the site is being updated or is otherwise busy — especially if there is a lot of traffic — callled the /. effect.]

    edit: Sorry about ending the question with that prepositional phrase, sometimes ya just gotta.

  7. thatvisionthing says:

    @thatvisionthing: To expand a little, from ew’s drone map that she posted a ways back, there’s drones over both my house and where I work, an hour away. I drive through a border checkpoint every time I go to work. I have to pass through a gauntlet of bouquets of cameras and God knows what, I hope not radiation but they won’t tell me. And yet every time I drive up to the guard, I meet another nice guy. I like him and he likes me. I hope it’s infectious. There’s a ghost in every fear machine they build. The machine is occupied.

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    @Benjamin Franklin:

    Free speech on a roll
    By The Associated Press

    ESTES PARK, Colo. — Secret Service agents claim they were missiles and a threat to national security. But a man arrested yesterday during President Bush’s visit to this mountain town says they were just rolls of toilet paper he was handing out in the “First Amendment Zone.”

  9. Teddy Partridge says:

    The time is going to come — not in the Obama era, but perhaps under his successor — when the US targets a US citizen not even born when the attacks on the homeland occurred. How can the 9/11 AUMF possibly cover the targeted assassination of a US citizen not yet born when it was signed?

  10. GKJames says:

    Officialdom’s squeamishness over terminology and righteous indignation are amusing. To assassinate is simply “to kill suddenly or secretively, especially a politically prominent person; murder premeditatedly and treacherously.” To “murder” is to kill someone unlawfully.

    Are the drone killings lawful? In the case of American citizens, it’s beyond dispute (or should be…) that killing without due process is inherently unlawful. Ergo, “assassination” is a legitimate — in fact, the only legitimate — term to use, irrespective of Johnson’s allergy to it.

    The underlying problem, of course, is that the Johnsons of this government will do everything possible to prevent the one reckoning that would mean anything: a full-blown public trial for wrongful death. But that would require courage and a commitment to the “nation of laws” our guiding lights like to yap about.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    American apologists and military strategists have been bragging about the “surgical precision” of their air attacks since Curtis LeMay firebombed Dresden and Tokyo. The latter, at least, was assisted by Bob McNamara, the man who never came to terms with the million dead in Vietnam, but who could admit that the Tokyo raids were probably war crimes.

    Air warfare proponents made the same claims about precision in the bombings of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, then admitted that carpet bombing ancient cultures back into the stone age was their attempt to save them. They made similar arguments, too, in order to persuade JFK to bomb Castro’s Cuba.

    The accuracy of such raids was as overstated as their claims about bomber and missile gaps. The true gap was in their credibility.

    Extra-judicial killing via remote piloted drone aircraft is the latest rendition of an old song, like a faux duet by Frank Sinatra and Whitney Houston. It is assassination by the remote pilot and his drone, instead of a sniper and his rifle. But it causes much greater damage. The killing of innocents is inescapable. Hence, the elaborate denials.

    Mr. Johnson may be earning his political spurs by spouting them. He is not telling the truth. And neither is Mr. Obama.

  12. thatvisionthing says:

    @Teddy Partridge:

    How can the 9/11 AUMF possibly cover the targeted assassination of a US citizen not yet born when it was signed?

    Right, and how can the AUMF possibly cover the bombing of Kabul on the NIGHT of 9/11? Old question of mine. CNN’s guests beforehand seemed to be calling for something just like that, and then as if on cue, kaboom. But nobody claimed responsibility, and the screen crawls were saying Washington seats of govt including Congress were evacuated, so…. ???

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