Im-mi-nent: (Adj, DOJ) 20 Months

Michael Isikoff has obtained and posted the white paper DOJ gave to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to stave off giving them the OLC memos that actually authorized Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing. I noted its mention in an SJC markup last year.

While the memos they are hiding are almost certainly far more damning (as I’ll lay out tomorrow), this is utterly damning in itself.

It effectively defines imminence so as to have no meaning.

First, the condition that an operational leader present an “imminent” threat of violent attack against the United States 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. Given the nature of, for example, the terrorist attacks on September 11, in which civilian airliners were hijacked to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this definition of imminence, which would require the United States to refrain from action until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself. The defensive options available to the United States may be reduced or eliminated if al-Qa’ida operatives disappear and cannot be found when the time of their attack approaches. Consequently, with respect to al-Qa’ida leaders who are continually planning attacks, the United States is likely to have only a limited window of opportunity within which to defend Americans in a manner that has both a high likelihood of success and sufficiencly reduces the probabilities of civilian casualties.

[snip]

By its nature, therefore, the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat, making the use of force appropriate. In this context, imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans.

[snip]

With this understanding, a high-level official could conclude, for example, that an individual poses an “imminent threat” of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Moreover, where the al-Qa’ida member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member’s involvement in al-Qa’ida’s continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the members is an imminent threat.

Even assuming this is the justification they used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, they killed him about 20 months after the alleged attacks (the UndieBomber and plotting against British Airways) in which they sort of have evidence against him (though DOJ has always managed to make sure that evidence was not challenged in an antagonistic setting).

If you measure from the toner cartridge plot — in which other AQAP members seem to have been the operational leaders — it was a year between the plot and the killing.

Anwar al-Awlaki may have been dangerous and surely was a hateful man. But it appears clear that DOJ had no evidence he was an imminent threat — at least as traditionally defined.

So they just redefined it.

Update: See Opino Juris for an assessment of this definition from an IHL and IHRL perspective.

Update: I’ve corrected my transcription of the imminent passage above (I had had “Second” instead of “Moreover”).

 

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.

2 replies
  1. beowulf says:

    Justice Scalia discussing “imminence” (in relation to Standing):

    “Such “some day” intentions—without any description of concrete plans, or indeed even any specification of when the some day will be—do not support a finding of the “actual or imminent” injury that our cases require.
    fn2 Although “imminence” is concededly a somewhat elastic concept, it cannot be stretched beyond its purpose, which is to ensure that the alleged injury is not too speculative for Article III purposes—that the injury is “` “certainly impending,”` ” id. , at 158 (emphasis added). It has been stretched beyond the breaking point when, as here, the plaintiff alleges only an injury at some indefinite future time, and the acts necessary to make the injury happen are at least partly within the plaintiff’s own control. In such circumstances we have insisted that the injury proceed with a high degree of immediacy, so as to reduce the possibility of deciding a case in which no injury would have occurred at all.”
    Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife

  2. Roman Berry says:

    Imminent now means…sometime maybe. Torture now means…stuff other countries do because when we do it, it’s just “enhanced interrogation.”

    Anyone else remember when there was hope that Obama would undo the worst of Bush? Instead of undoing, there has been codification and expansion. And the abuse of the language, both English and the law, is astounding. Good time to read Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”

    One last bit…

    I don’t get “Anwar al-Awlaki…surely was a hateful man.” Recall that Awlaki was brought to the Pentagon because his was a moderate Muslim voice. I don’t know that Awlaki was hateful so much as he was horrified by the actions of the US and felt that Muslims had a right to respond to those actions. To me, that isn’t hateful. To me, that’s human.

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