Why Was CIA Assessing Whether They Could Drone-Kill Anwar al-Awlaki?

For years, defenders of the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki have always pointed to the second confession Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made, implicating Awlaki in each and every part of his plot.

There were always problems with that. Several pieces of evidence indicate the drone attack on December 24, 2009 that missed Awalaki had specifically targeted him; at that point, the government did not consider Awlaki operational. Abdulmutallab made 3 confessions, and only the one made to the High Value Interrogation Group (HIG) after a month of isolation and in the context of a (I’ve heard second-hand, unbelievably generous) plea deal that was never finalized implicated Awlaki in planning his attack. Claims Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab make his martyrdom video don’t explain why AQAP’s best English language propagandist would make a video with a man schooled in English in Arabic. Subsequent evidence suggests actions attributed to Awlaki in that confession were probably taken by Fahd al-Quso and Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

In other words, there are a lot of holes in the confession always used to justify Awlaki’s drone killing. Abdulmutallab’s second confession should be treated the same as his first and third ones: a narrative crafted by someone who has a big incentive to shade the truth, and therefore of dubious reliability.

The release of yesterday’s ridiculously cursory OLC memo authorizing the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki introduces one more reason to doubt the narrative that claims Abdulmutallab’s second confession provided justification for Awlaki’s killing.

CIA Assesses


The memo relies not on what FBI has told OLC. It relies on CIA’s assessment that Awlaki is “a senior leader of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula” based on “factual predicates as represented by the CIA and in the materials provided to use from the Intelligence Community.”Abdulmutallab’s second confession might be included in those materials provided from the IC. Even though the confession was obtained as part of a criminal investigation, the FBI is part of the IC, so broadly speaking that second confession would qualify, I guess.

But the assessment came not from FBI, which had the lead investigating the Undiebomb attack, but from the CIA. Which ought to give you pause, given that just months before this memo was written, the intelligence community’s partners had convinced the US that they hadn’t killed a Bedouin clan in the al-Majala strike. Indeed, the intelligence relating to Awlaki seemed to be consistently stinky until such time as the CIA set up its own drone base in Saudi Arabia in mid-2011.

Besides, what are we executing American citizens based on the CIA’s assessment for anyway?

At least according to David Barron, the case against Awlaki came not from FBI, but from CIA. That doesn’t mean CIA didn’t have evidence supporting its claims (and remember, CIA has a role in HIG, as does JSOC). But it does suggest Abdulmutallab’s second confession may not have the role the defenders of Awlaki’s execution like to cling to.

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.

4 replies
  1. bevin says:

    The problem is that government is held to be truthful until caught in an undeniable falsehood. You appear to have come upon one or two here, lies used to justify depriving an individual of the due process of testing the evidence against him.

    What is the penalty for ordering the death of a man based upon what were probably understood at the time to be untruths? The penalty to the perpetrator of the killing and the supplier of its false justification?

  2. The Tadic Suite, Munich says:

    The background here is that Congress originally wrote the Geneva Convention common articles into law, as required. Then after the Hamdan decision CIA made Congress revoke that and decriminalize suspension of the right to trial. CIA put on their special spy goggles and read the invisible ink in the Geneva Convention that says, when you need to kill somebody, OLC has to say Olly Olly Oxen Free and then it’s OK cause that’s due process. It’s still a war crime, of course, but at home you’re fine. Universal-jurisdiction crimes could be a problem in independent courts but the USA doesn’t have those because judges remember what happened to Robert Vance.

  3. orionATL says:

    at one point i this saga i recall mention being made of al-awlaki havig been a cia operative and then having turned to the al-q side. the implication would be that the cia killed al-a in revenge for being a “turncoat” – then killed his son to underscore the message to other cia operatives.

    this woud impy that cia lied to hig, nsc, obama, congress as part of a strategy of building a case justifying use of the presidetial authority to assassinate in order merely to take organizational revenge on al-awlaki.

  4. MonkeeRench says:

    The memo states : “…(CIA)’s proposed use of lethal force…”

    In 1947 Congress deliberately created the CIA to be a civilian-controlled intelligance agency that was NOT authorized to develop policy. To propose the use of lethal force is not providing information to “decisionmakers”, it’s the stark development of policy. The corruption of statutory intent has also included the false development, through torture, of (dis)information to justify such unconstitutional policy, further to be carried out by the unconstitutional militarized usurpation of decisionmaking by the CIA itself.

    This is elitist, fascist shadow-government at its worst, with no prospect of results other than inevitable, self-propagating, distastrous blowback.

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