One of the most interesting exchanges in yesterday’s Threat Assessment hearing occurred between Ron Wyden and James Clapper–with David Petraeus, whom Wyden calls out, observing silently (the exchange starts at 1:01).
Wyden: Let me wrap up with you Director Clapper on an issue that I’ve asked about before at this open hearing. General Petraeus knows about this, this is a question about the use of force and a speech that was given by Mr. Koh, Harold Koh of the State Department, a lawyer. Let me note at the beginning it’s a matter of public record that the intelligence community sometimes takes direct action against terrorists and this direct action sometimes involves the use of lethal force. And as you know Director [sic] Koh gave a speech outlining our policy with respect to various terrorist groups, talked about detention, talked about the use of unmanned drones and noted that under US law, the use of force against terrorist groups is permitted by Congressional authorization, while under international law it is permitted by America’s right to self defense. But in spite of having asked about this on a number of occasions, and General Petraeus, you know that I, too, share the Chair’s view with respect to your working with us here on this committee and your being forthright, I’ve not been able to get an answer to this specific question. And I would like to know whether that speech that Mr. Koh gave contained unstated exceptions for intelligence agencies?
Clapper: With respect to counterterrorism, it does not. So it applies to all components of the government involved in counterterrorism be it military or non-military.
Wyden: Are there other exceptions other than counterterrorist activities?
Clapper: I believe his speech dealt with counterterrorism.
Wyden: So you believe that his speech, the text of the speech–cause this would be important–applies to all agencies. It applies to the intelligence community, his entire speech, the overall thrust of the speech applies to all of the intelligence community.
Clapper: With respect to counterterrorism, yes.
Now, it seems clear that Wyden is referring to the portion of Koh’s speech that deals with drone strikes, which is reproduced in full below the line.
And my impression is that Wyden–who emphasizes targeting terrorists when he asks the question–was asking whether there was an exception to the principles of distinction and proportionality for the CIA when they used drones. Or, to put it more plainly, Wyden seemed to be asking whether the CIA could use drones to target civilians.
My guess is that Petraeus has refused to answer that question not to hide a CIA exception for the use of drones with civilian terrorists (say, with Anwar al-Awlaki) but rather to hide the CIA involvement in targeting of civilians in other contexts.
That’s the implication of Clapper’s response: “with the respect to counterterrorism, yes.” And Wyden’s expression as he delivers the question, “Are there other exceptions other than counterterrorist activities?” is worth watching.
There may be further confusion stemming from the language of Koh’s speech. While he was, in this section, specifically addressing “the Law of 9/11,” he does claim that his comments apply to “all of our operations involving the use of force.” Clapper’s caveat seems to belie that claim.
Koh’s language also addressed the use of force generally, not just those dealing with drones. We do use drones for missions outside of counterterrorism–including in drug operations, so Clapper’s caveat might suggest the CIA can target civilians in such context.
But if I had to guess, I’d say this had to deal with non-drone use of lethal force, possibly the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Was Clapper suggesting CIA targeted civilian nuclear scientists?
And while we may not have attached the bombs to Iranian civilian scientists’ cars (though our surrogates did), remember the suggestions that our drone surveillance of Iran was involved in those assassinations.