Dennis Blair and Drone Targeting

On February 3, 2010, in a public House Intelligence Committee hearing, Ranking House Intelligence member Pete Hoesktra asked then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair about the “framework” that might be used to target a US citizen.

So there is a framework and a policy for what’s hypothetically a radical born cleric … who’s living outside of the United States, there’s a clear path as to when this person may be engaging in free speech overseas and when he may have moved into recruitment or when he may have moved into actual coordinating and carrying out or coordinating attacks against the United States?

In response, Blair gave one of the most detailed statements any serving Administration figure has uttered about the process used to target Americans.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen must get special permission.

“We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

He also said there are criteria that must be met to authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen that include “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved.”


Mr. Blair responded that he would rather not discuss the details of this criteria in open session, but he assured: “We don’t target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it.”

He added, “The reason I went this far in open session is I just don’t want other Americans who are watching to think that we are careless about endangering … lives at all. But we especially are not careless about endangering American lives, as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country and I think we ought to go into details in closed session.”

Viewed from this distance, the conversation is particularly ironic. As a Gang of Four member, Hoekstra presumably received a detailed review of the attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki on December 24, 2009.

Yet, it is largely because of Hoekstra’s attempt to politicize the Nidel Hasan attack that we now know that the Intelligence Community believed, on the day Awlaki was targeted, that he was not operational. Even on the day this exchange occurred, it is not clear Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had yet changed his initial confession to implicate Awlaki.

So while the NSA had found messages between the UndieBomber and Awlaki to indicate they communicated, and while the US had intelligence warning of an imminent attack that led us to target a clan of Bedouins even while Abdulmutallab was on his way to Detroit, even when this exchange occurred it’s not clear we had clear evidence implicating Awlaki in the UndieBomb attempt.

Two months later, Awlaki reportedly would be added to the CIA’s kill list, presumably based on the plea agreement based representations of Abdulmutallab. The following month, in May 2010, Blair would be ousted, ostensibly because of his failure to prevent the UndieBomb attack, though that explanation didn’t make any sense, for a number of reasons. And only after that–in early June 2010–would the Administration finally get around to finalizing the OLC memo that ostensibly okayed the targeting of Awlaki, though the memo clearly did not cover the circumstances of that first attempt.

I find all that rather interesting background, considering Blair’s increasingly assertive calls for the Administration to be more transparent in its discussions of drones.

Blair — who was dismissed by President Obama in May 2010 after a falling-out over intelligence matters — said the administration should make public some details of how and why it decides that some terrorists should be targeted. “The United States is a democracy, we want our people to know how we use military force and that we use it in ways the United States is proud of,” Blair said. “There’s been far too little debate” about this form of killing.

The drone strikes are reviewed, after they have taken place, by the House and Senate intelligence committees, so there is some oversight of the process by which targets are selected and people killed. But Blair said he doubted the White House would allow the public insight into the drone program. “They’ve made the cold-blooded calculation that it’s better to hunker down and take the criticism than to take the debate public — which I think in the long run is essential,” he said.

He’s the guy who went on the record saying “special permission” was needed to target an American–with the understand that permission came from the President. And he now describes a refusal to explain the drone targeting “hunkering down.”

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.

5 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    It sounds like the President is getting really bad advice on this, and it’s probably coming from Brennan (and some of the Bush leftovers?).

    (I have news for whoever is telling him hunkering down is a good idea: the questions aren’t going to disappear. On this subject, both parties worry about drones and assassinations being used in the US.)

  2. scribe says:

    @P J Evans: Please do not give us the “if only the King/Czar/Fuehrer/President knew, this would end” line of bullshit. Blair was fired for precisely the same reason Jay Carney was (as referred to in a Swartz post the other day): he stood up for something remotely approaching law and morality.

    It should not need repetition, but the fact remains that the greatest ‘murcan killers of innocent women and children through violent means are not knuckleheads with semiautomatic AR15 clones or large-capacity pistols. They are, rather, some of the same folks bitching about them: Barack Obama and John Brennan.

  3. P J Evans says:

    That wasn’t what I was saying. I was saying that the President, or someone really close to his level, is signing off on this stuff, and isn’t willing to come clean on it, even when people all over the country are starting to notice their lack of transparency (and also starting to worry about things like drones and assassinations being used here as a control method.)

    By the way: I’m a lot farther to the left than Mr O.

  4. scribe says:

    @P J Evans: My point was, the President is getting the advice he wants. We have seen that when someone tells him something he does not want to hear or says something he does not want said, he fires them. He is most definitively not a stupid man – one does not get the educational achievements he did by being stupid – nor is he naive – no one having completed 4 years as President can claim naivete. Moreover, if the President wants something to stop (or start, for that matter) all he has to do is say so. One sentence. He has an entire Executive Branch which will do his bidding, with the more senior people being all the more eager to fulfill his every whim. All that has to be said for subordinates to drop everything and do something different is “the President wants this”.

    Thus, it should be quite transparent that the killing goes on precisely because Obama wants it. No one should be so casual or careless as to think otherwise.

  5. scribe says:

    And I’ve been convinced since it was first announced that Hilda Solis was leaving at Labor, that Obama fired her. She was too effective, and Corporate America didn’t like that. LA Board of Supervisors is a long way down from Secretary of Labor.

    My theory: Obama traded her for WalMart’s going along with his coming gun control.

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