Extrajudicial Execution

Conferring Immunity from Justice, Barack Obama Becomes “The Great Vaccinator”

Ronald Reagan was The Great Communicator. Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty efforts were aimed at realizing The Great Society. Barack Obama’s presidency is moving toward greatness, as well, but not in a good way. At seemingly every turn, Obama has made sure that major crimes are met not with justice but with immunity. Obama has conferred so much immunity on so many different groups that he has earned the title “The Great Vaccinator”.

Ironically, even Obama’s major “success”, the killing of Osama bin Laden, is marred by an illegal act that this time is mingled with biological rather than legal immunity. It appears that Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, working with the CIA, pretended to be carrying out a house-to-house vaccination program so that he could gather intelligence on who was residing in the compound where bin Laden was found. This short-sighted action by the CIA has now put public vaccination programs in a very bad light and set back vaccination programs in impoverished countries significantly.

Even before becoming President, Obama began his quest of conferring immunity wherever justice is demanded. Once he had the Democratic nomination in his pocket, Obama abandoned the principled stand he took during the primaries (when he said he would filibuster any bill with retroactive immunity and would vote against it) and voted along with all Senate Republicans for cloture and then in favor of the bill that conferred retroactive immunity on the telecommunications companies that illegally wiretapped citizens without warrants.

After he won the election but prior to taking office, Obama then began his quest to confer immunity for one of the most egregious crimes committed by our country, the institutionalization of torture as a major tool in the “War on Terror”. As ABC published on January 11, 2009, Obama famously told George Stephanopoulos “we need to look forward”: Continue reading

Drone War Secrecy and Kill or Capture

As we stand on the doorstep of President Obama signing into law the new NDAA and its dreaded controversial provisions, there are two new articles out of interest this morning. The first is an incredibly useful, and pretty thorough, synopsis at Lawfare of the new NDAA entitled “NDAA FAQ: A Guide for the Perplexed”. It is co-written by Ben Wittes and Bobby Chesney and, though I may differ slightly in a couple of areas, it is not by much and their primer is extremely useful. I suggest it highly, and it has condensed a lot of material into an easily digestible blog length post.

The second is a long read from the Washington Post on how secrecy defines Obama’s drone wars:

The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.
….
“They’ve based it on the personal legitimacy of [President] Obama — the ‘trust me’ concept,” Anderson said. “That’s not a viable concept for a president going forward.”

The article goes on to state how the CIA, and the majority of voices in the White House, are fighting tooth and nail for continued utmost secrecy lest any of our enemies somehow discover we are blowing them to bits with our drones. This is, of course, entirely predictable, especially now that the former head of the CIA leads the military and the former military chief for the greater Af/Pak theater which has long been ground zero for the drone kill program, Petraeus, is the head of the CIA.

But then the Post piece brings up our old friend, the OLC:

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has opposed the declassification of any portion of its opinion justifying the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen this year. Awlaki, a propagandist for the Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate whom Obama identified as its “external operations” chief, was the first American known to have been the main target of a drone strike. While officials say they did not require special permission to kill him, the administration apparently felt it would be prudent to spell out its legal rationale.
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Under domestic law, the administration considers all three to be covered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In two key sentences that have no expiration date, the AUMF gives the president sole power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups or persons who committed or aided the attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

The CIA has separate legal authority to conduct counterterrorism operations under a secret presidential order, or finding, first signed by President Ronald Reagan more than two decades ago. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed an amendment, called a Memorandum of Notification, overriding a long-standing ban on CIA assassinations overseas and allowing “lethal” counterterrorism actions against a short list of named targets, including Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants. Killing was approved only if capture was not deemed “feasible.”

A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration amended the finding again, dropping the list of named targets and the caveat on “feasible” capture.

“All of that conditional language was not included,” said a former Bush administration official involved in those decisions. “This was straight-out legal authority. . . . By design, it was written as broadly as possible.”

This brings us back to the notable October 8, 2011 article by the New York Times’ Charlie Savage on his viewing of the Awlaki targeting memo relied on by the Obama White House for the extrajudicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki. Marcy, at the time discussed the incongruity of the collateral damage issue and the fact Samir Khan was also a kill in the targeted Awlaki strike.

I would like to delve into a second, and equally misleading, meme that has been created by the self serving and inconsistent secret law Obama has geometrically expanded from the already deplorable Bush/Cheney policy set: the false dichotomy in the kill or capture element of the Continue reading

Columnist Endorses War Crimes Against al Qaeda Because They Murdered a Journalist

I had never heard of Alex Beam before today, but his column in today’s Boston Globe crossed my email (h/t dakine01) and I am still fuming at his cavalier endorsement of war crimes. Perhaps even more infuriating, though, is that Beam’s endorsement of war crimes is an aside tossed in while Beam is making an argument with which I otherwise agree.

Beam’s central point, as he suggests in his title for the column,”A double standard on war crimes?”, is that while John Yoo has been widely vilified for his role in authoring the OLC memos that authorized torture, David Barron and  Martin Lederman haven’t been attacked nearly as aggressively for authoring the OLC memos under which Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed in Yemen.  My only quibble with that point is that Beam’s roster for the torture memos should be expanded to also include at least Jay Bybee and Steven Bradbury.  His argument:

So, which is the greater crime against the Constitution that all three men swore to uphold? Waterboarding Al Qaeda suspects or killing US citizens? Yoo has been vilified from Marin County to Munich for his legal opinion. If the Obama lawyers are facing job loss or tenure revocation, I haven’t heard about it. This is not a subject they care to discuss.

Beam relies on Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame to further his argument:

“I do think the two cases call for a different level of criticism,’’ she says. “Isn’t killing worse than torture? Even if the arguments to support torture are weaker arguments, it seems to me that the US should err on the side of the strictest compliance of the law when it comes to taking somebody’s life.’’

Where is the outrage, I asked? It won’t come from the right, she pointed out, “because the policies that Obama is pursuing are basically the same policies that Bush pursued.’’ So where are the principled men and women of the left? “Some of the people who criticized Yoo and his colleagues are in the administration,’’ she answered. “Marty Lederman was a critic of John Yoo, and now he’s writing the memos. So he’s not going to criticize himself.’’

I agree that Lederman and Barron should be subjected to the same level of criticism as Yoo (and Bybee and Bradbury), although I’m less inclined to make a distinction between the crimes of murder and torture.  I find both equally heinous and never justified under any conditions.  As O’Connell points out, the torture arguments likely were much farther outside the law than the extrajudicial execution arguments, but I still can’t join her in making killing artificially a higher crime than torturing.

But here is the jaw-dropping problem with Beam’s column.  Just a bit over halfway through the column, we get this paragraph:

Two points. First, I’m all for waterboarding Al Qaeda bad guys, and the disappearance of al-Awlaki and his ilk by whatever means necessary bothers me not a whit. Continue reading

Yemen Tries to Claim US Drone Strikes as Yemeni Air Force Strikes

As MadDog alerted us this morning, there were multiple strikes against alleged terrorist targets in southern Yemen Friday night.  What stands out to me in scanning the various media reports about these attacks is that even though it is crystal clear that these attacks are carried out by US drones firing missiles, Yemeni defense officials try to claim that the attacks are carried out by the Yemeni air force.  This is an interesting contrast to the approach taken by Pakistani officials, where even though the official position of Pakistan’s government is that US missile strikes are not allowed, Pakistani officials make no efforts to claim the strikes as their own, allowing the assumption that the strikes are carried out by the US to go unchallenged.

The most recent report on the strikes in Yemen that I can find is this brief update from Reuters [Note: the Reuters article was revised and expanded significantly while this post was being written; the passage quoted is from the earlier version and no longer appears directly as quoted, but the drone death toll of 24 and government claim of responsibility survives.]:

The death toll from air strikes that killed a senior al Qaeda official in southern Yemen has risen to 24, local officials said on Saturday.

The Defense Ministry said Yemeni aircraft had carried out the attack on Friday night.

This report has the highest death toll I’ve seen on the story and includes the note that Yemeni officials claim they carried out the attacks.  By contrast, the CNN report on the attacks puts the death toll at only 7 and reports that there were three drone attacks.  This report, although it quotes Yemeni officials, is silent on responsibility for this attack, although it does reference the earlier attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki as having been carried out by the US [Note: this article also was updated, with the death toll up to 9 now.]:

The son of U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was among those killed in a trio of drone attacks in southern Yemen on Friday night, a security official said.

The attacks, carried out in the Shabwa district, killed seven suspected militants, the defense ministry said. It would not confirm that Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki was among them.

The senior security official in Shabwa, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the younger Awlaki had been hiding in the mountains of Shabwa for more than eight months. He had first-hand knowledge of the death, he said.

Continue reading

All Sides Agree There Is Excessive Secrecy Surrounding Targeting Of US Citizens

The targeted execution of Anwar al-Awlaki struck different people along the political spectrum in the United States in many different ways, but it has been heartening most all have recognized it as a seminal moment worthy of dissection and contemplation. Despite all the discussion afforded the execution of Awlaki in the last few days, it cannot be emphasized enough how impossible it is to have a completely meaningful discussion on the topic due to the relentless blanket of secrecy imposed by the United States government. Before I get into the substantive policy and legal issues surrounding the targeting and assassination of American citizens, which I will come back to in a separate post, a few words about said secrecy are in order.

The first to note, and complain of, the strange secrecy surrounding not just the kill listing of Awlaki, but the entire drone assassination program, was Marcy right here in Emptywheel. Within a couple of hours of the news of the Awlaki strike, she called for the release of the evidence and information serving as the Administration’s foundation for the extrajudicial execution of an American citizen and within a couple of hours of that, noted the ironic inanity of the pattern and practice of the one hand of the Obama Administration, through such officials as Bob Gates, James Clapper and Panetta trotting out “state secrets” to claim drone actions cannot even be mentioned while the other hand, through mouthpieces such as John Brennan are out blabbing all kinds of details in order to buck up Administration policy.

Now, you would expect us here at Emptywheel to vociferously complain about the rampant secrecy and hypocritical application of it by the Executive Branch, what has been refreshing, however, is how broad the spectrum of commentators voicing the same concerns has been. Glenn Greenwald was, as expected, on the cause from the start, but so too have voices on the other side of the traditional spectrum such as the Brookings Institute’s Benjamin Wittes, to former Gang of Eight member and noted hawk Jane Harman, and current Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin and Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First.

But if there were any doubt that it was just left leaning voices calling for release of targeting and legal foundation information, or only sources such as Emptywheel or the New York Times pointing out the hypocrisy and duplicity with which the Administration handles their precious “state secret”, then take a gander at what former Bush OLC chief Jack Goldsmith had to say Monday, after a weekend of contemplation of the issues surrounding the take out of Awlaki:

I agree that the administration should release a redacted version of the opinion, or should extract the legal analysis and place it in another document that can be released consistent with restrictions on classified information.

I have no doubt that Obama administration lawyers did a thorough and careful job of analyzing the legal issues surrounding the al-Aulaqi killing. The case for disclosing the analysis is easy. The killing of a U.S. citizen in this context is unusual and in some quarters controversial. A thorough public explanation of the legal basis for the killing (and for targeted killings generally) would allow experts in the press, the academy, and Congress to scrutinize and criticize it, and would, as Harman says, permit a much more informed public debate. Such public scrutiny is especially appropriate since, as Judge Bates’s ruling last year shows, courts are unlikely to review executive action in this context. In a real sense, legal accountability for the practice of targeted killings depends on a thorough public legal explanation by the administration.

Jack has hit the nail precisely on the head here, the courts to date have found no avenue of interjection, and even should they in the future, the matter is almost surely to be one of political nature. And accountability of our politicians depends on the public havin sufficient knowledge and information with which to make at least the basic fundamental decisions on propriety and scope. But Mr. Goldsmith, admirably, did not stop there and continued on to note the very hypocrisy and duplicity Marcy did last Friday:

We know the government can provide a public legal analysis of this sort because presidential counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh have given such legal explanations in speeches, albeit in limited and conclusory terms. These speeches show that there is no bar in principle to a public disclosure of a more robust legal analysis of targeted killings like al-Aulaqi’s. So too do the administration’s many leaks of legal conclusions (and operational details) about the al-Aulaqi killing.

A full legal analysis, as opposed to conclusory explanations in government speeches and leaks, would permit a robust debate about targeted killings – especially of U.S. citizens – that is troubling to many people. Such an analysis could explain, for example, whether the government believed that al-Aulaqi possessed constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth or other amendments, and (assuming the government concluded that he possessed some such rights) why the rights were not implicated by the strike. It could also describe the limits of presidential power in this context.

The Obama administration frequently trumpets its commitment to transparency and the rule of law. The President and many of his subordinates were critical of what they deemed to be unnecessarily secretive Bush administration legal opinions, and they disclosed an unprecedented number of them, including many classified ones. Now is the time for the administration to apply to itself a principle that it applied to its predecessor.

Again, exactly right. From Marcy Wheeler, to Gang of Eight members, to Jack Goldsmith, the voice is both clear and consistent: The Obama Administration needs to come clean with as much of the legal and factual underpinnings as humanly possible short of compromising “means and methods” that truly are still secret. That would be, by almost any account, a lot of information and law with which the American public, indeed the world, could not only know and understand, but use to gauge their votes and opinions on. Doing so would make the United States, and its actions, stronger and more sound.

In the second part of this series, which I should have done by tomorrow morning sometime, I will discuss what we know, and what we don’t know, about the legal and factual underpinnings for targeted killing of US citizens, and sort through possible protocols that may be appropriate for placement of a citizen target and subsequent killing.

UPDATE: As MadDog noted in comments, Jack Goldsmith has penned a followup piece at Lawfare expounding on the need for release of the foundational underpinnings of how an American citizen such as Alawki came to be so targeted. Once again, it is spot on:

First, it is wrong, as Ben notes, for the government to maintain technical covertness but then engage in continuous leaks, attributed to government officials, of many (self-serving) details about the covert operations and their legal justifications. It is wrong because it is illegal. It is wrong because it damages (though perhaps not destroys) the diplomatic and related goals of covertness. And it is wrong because the Executive branch seems to be trying to have its cake (not talking about the program openly in order to serve diplomatic interests and perhaps deflect scrutiny) and eat it too (leaking promiscuously to get credit for the operation and to portray it as lawful). I do not know if the leaks are authorized in some sense or not, or where in the executive branch they come from, or what if anything the government might be doing to try to stop them. But of course the president is ultimately responsible for the leaks. One might think – I am not there yet, but I understand why someone might be – that the double standard on discussing covert actions disqualifies the government from invoking technical covertness to avoid scrutiny.

Second, there is no bar grounded in technical covertness, or in concerns about revealing means and methods of intelligence gathering, to revealing (either in a redacted opinion or in a separate document) the legal reasoning supporting a deadly strike on a U.S. citizen. John Brennan and Harold Koh have already talked about the legality of strikes outside Afghanistan in abstract terms, mostly focusing on international law. I don’t think much more detail on the international law basis is necessary; nor do I think that more disclosure on international law would do much to change the minds of critics who believe the strikes violate international law. But there has been practically nothing said officially (as opposed through leaks and gestures and what is revealed in between the lines in briefs) about the executive branch processes that lie behind a strike on a U.S. citizen, or about what constitutional rights the U.S. citizen target possesses, or about the limitations and conditions on the president’s power to target and kill a U.S. citizen. This information would, I think, matter to American audiences that generally support the president on the al-Aulaqi strike but want to be assured that it was done lawfully and with care. The government could easily reveal this more detailed legal basis for a strike on a U.S. citizen without reference to particular operations, or targets, or means of fire, or countries.

Listen, we may not always agree with Jack here, and both Marcy and I have laid into him plenty over the years where appropriate; but credit should be given where and when due. It is here. And, while I am at it, I would like to recommend people read the Lawfare blog. All three principals there, Ben Wittes, Goldsmith and Bobby Chesney write intelligent and thoughtful pieces on national security and law of war issues. No, you will not always agree with them, nor they with you necessarily; that is okay, it is still informative and educational. If nothing else, you always want to know what the smart people on the other side are saying.

[Incredibly awesome graphic by the one and only Darkblack. If you are not familiar with his work, or have not seen it lately, please go peruse the masterpieces at his homebase. Seriously good artwork and incredible music there.]

Extrajudicial Execution of Samir Khan Arguably More Significant Than Awlaki

By this time in the day, the early morning report of the killing of Anwar Awlaki is old news. From ABC News:

Senior administration officials say that the U.S. has been targeting Awlaki for months, though in recent weeks officials were able to pin down his location.

“They were waiting for the right opportunity to get him away from any civilians,” a senior administration official tells ABC News.

And today they got him. Awlaki was killed by a drone delivered Hellfire missile, via a joint CIA and JSOC operation, in the town of Kashef, in Yemen’s Jawf province, approximately 140 kilometres east of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. But not only Awlaki was killed, at least three others, including yet another American citizen, Samir Khan, were killed in the strike.

That’s right, not just one, but two, Americans were summarily and extrajudicially executed by their own government today, at the direct order of the President of the United States. No trial, no verdict, just off with their heads. Heck, there were not even charges filed against either Awlaki or Khan. And it is not that the government did not try either, there was a grand jury convened on Khan, but no charges. Awlaki too was investigated for charges at least twice by the DOJ, but non were found.

But at least Awlaki was on Barrack Obama’s “Americans That Are Cool to Kill List”. Not so with Samir Khan. Not only is there no evidence whatsoever Khan is on the classified list for killing (actually two different lists) my survey of people knowledgeable in the field today revealed not one who believed khan was on any such list, either by DOD or CIA.

So, the US has been tracking scrupulously Awlaki for an extended period and knew with certainty where he was and when, and knew with certainty immediately they had killed Awlaki and Khan. This means the US also knew, with certainty, they were going to execute Samir Khan.

How did the US then make the kill order knowing they were executing a US citizen, not only extrajudicially, but not even with the patina of being on the designated kill list (which would at least presuppose some consideration and Yoo-like pseudo-legal cover)?

Did Barack Obama magically auto-pixie dust Khan onto the list with a wave of his wand on the spot? Even under the various law of war theories, which are not particularly compelling justification to start with as we are not at war with Yemen and it is not a “battlefield”, the taking of Khan would appear clearly prohibited under both American and International law. As Mary Ellen O’Connell, vice chairman of the American Society of International Law, relates, via Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s Dangerroom:

“The United States is not involved in any armed conflict in Yemen,” O’Connell tells Danger Room, “so to use military force to carry out these killings violates international law.”

O’Connell’s argument turns on the question of whether the U.S. is legally at war in Yemen. And for the administration, that’s a dicey proposition. The Obama administration relies on the vague Authorization to Use Military Force, passed in the days after 9/11, to justify its Shadow Wars against terrorists. Under its broad definition, the Authorization’s writ makes Planet Earth a battlefield, legally speaking.

But the Authorization authorizes war against “nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” It’s a stretch to apply that to al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate, which didn’t exist on 9/11. But when House Republicans tried to re-up the Authorization to explicitly bless the new contours of the war against al-Qaida, the Obama administration balked, fearing the GOP was actually tying its hands on the separate question of terrorist detentions.

“It is only during the intense fighting of an armed conflict that international law permits the taking of human life on a basis other than the immediate need to save life,” O’Connell continues. “In armed conflict, a privileged belligerent may use lethal force on the basis of reasonable necessity. Outside armed conflict, the relevant standard is absolute necessity.”

So did al-Awlaki represent an “absolute” danger to the United States? President Obama, in acknowledging Awlaki’s death on Friday morning, didn’t present any evidence that he did.

And therein lies lies the reason the US killing of Samir Khan may be even more troubling than the already troubling killing of al-Awlaki. There is no satisfactory legal basis for either one, but as to Khan there was NO process whatsoever, even the joke “listing” process utilized for Awlaki. The US says it took care to not harm “civilians”, apparently that would mean Yemeni civilians. American citizens are fair game for Mr. Obama, list or no list, crime or no crime, charges or no charges. Off with their heads!

People should not just be evaluating today’s fresh kills as to Awlaki, Samir Khan should be at the tip of the discussion spear too.

Emptywheel Twitterverse
bmaz @ScottGreenfield @LilianaSegura @roomfordebate I would have scowled at the very question. Which is exactly what it deserves.
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bmaz @michaelbkiefer Will; Bodney dile an immediate special action?
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bmaz @JMSilverbrook @gideonstrumpet Okay, that is pretty awesome. Well done! Nice doily too!
6mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @AZ_Dream_Killer What you been up to lately? May have to come visit you for ASU game.
8mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @ColMorrisDavis @twitter Are you done yet?
12mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @ScottGreenfield @LilianaSegura @roomfordebate In fairness, if they asked people like us, we would be screaming and hissing at the question.
13mreplyretweetfavorite
bmaz @LaurieRoberts @MacEachernDoug Unfortunately, not exactly a shocker.
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bmaz @ScottGreenfield @LilianaSegura @roomfordebate What in the living fuck is wrong with people??
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bmaz RT @ScottGreenfield: This can't be serious. RT @LilianaSegura: No. Next question. RT @roomfordebate Do We Need a Law Against Catcalling? ht…
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JimWhiteGNV RT @cbpolis: Why I'm grateful to #KaciHickox for fighting #Ebola in #SierraLeone/globally, & anti-science ignorance in US: http://t.co/aiT
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bmaz RT @PatrickCToomey: New @ACLU comments on #FBI's proposal to make it easier to hack suspects' computers: https://t.co/6ExEjc1yfw @NateWessl
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bmaz @Will_Bunch But, still, leaking this on a Friday 5pm dump is pretty bogus.
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