Harold Koh

Whither the Assassination Consideration?

As I noted earlier, I’m doing a fairly detailed comparison of what parts of the white paper don’t show up in the drone memo released Monday. But that’s going to take a while.

Far easier is to compare what Charlie Savage’s sources said the memo included but doesn’t.  I’ve noted before that they told him there was one memo when there were really two. Given these discrepancies, it’s possible they merged the two memos in their descriptions:

  • Savage’s sources said the memo was “roughly 50 pages;” it is 41
  • Savage’s sources said the memo was “completed around June 2010;” it was completed on July 16 (remember, too, that Scott Shane FOIAed the memo in June 2010)

Other than those details, Savage’s story maps the actual memo very closely, down to the caveat that,

The memorandum, which was written more than a year before Mr. Awlaki was killed, does not independently analyze the quality of the evidence against him

Similar caveats appear repeatedly in the memo (most OLC memos start that way, and a redacted footnote in this apparently lays that out, but this one repeated it several times later in the analysis).

Savage’s report of the content of the memo starts — as the memo itself does (though this is redacted; see page 41 for a description of what appears in the redacted sections) — with a description of the claims the Intelligence Community used to claim Awlaki qualified as a target under the AUMF. Significantly, this includes the claim that “a pattern of activities [] counterterrorism officials have said show[] that he had evolved from merely being a propagandist … to playing an operational role.” Later the memo refers to Awlaki recruiting, which I suspect may be an artifact of the argument they made in February 2010, based on what Dennis Blair said publicly at the time. So I find this claim of a progression of particular interest (not least because it’s another reason why this memo simply could not cover the attempt to kill Awlaki on December 24, 2009).

Before Savage’s report turns to the consideration of 18 USC 1119 — which is where the memo starts its analysis — it describes a section considering whether the “ban” (in an unenforceable Executive Order that gets changed from time to time without notice in the actual text) on assassinations would prohibit such a killing.

It then considered possible obstacles and rejected each in turn.

Among them was an executive order that bans assassinations. That order, the lawyers found, blocked unlawful killings of political leaders outside of war, but not the killing of a lawful target in an armed conflict.

No discussion of assassination appears in the memo (unless it appears in a classified section and is not noted by the court opinion, but that seems unlikely as there’s no logical place for it). That said, the “ban” on assassinations did appear prominently in Harold Koh’s justification for drones given in March 2010.

Fourth and finally, some have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the long-standing domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.” 

This leads me to suspect the structure of the first memo may parallel the structure of Koh’s speech, with the assassination “ban” figuring prominently in that memo. That is, it seems likely Savage’s sources, in conflating the two memos (if that’s what they did), included that language because it appeared in the first memo.

From that deviation, however, the report in Savage’s story returns to its close match of the actual drone content, with one exception and one area where Savage’s report probably reflects something redacted in our version of the memo.

  • Consideration of 18 USC 1119 (though Savage doesn’t talk about the heightened importance of this analysis for CIA)
  • Consideration of War Crimes Act
  • Consideration of the Fifth and Fourth Amendments

The part that Savage includes but doesn’t appear in the declassified memo is this bit:

But that raised another pressing question: would it comply with the laws of war if the drone operator who fired the missile was a Central Intelligence Agency official, who, unlike a soldier, wore no uniform? The memorandum concluded that such a case would not be a war crime, although the operator might be in theoretical jeopardy of being prosecuted in a Yemeni court for violating Yemen’s domestic laws against murder, a highly unlikely possibility. [my emphasis]

That italicized bit doesn’t appear in what we got Monday (though the acknowledgment that CIA officers would not have immunity in footnote 44 addresses precisely the same legal issue), but there is a redacted section on page 38 that may well acknowledge that point.

Finally, there’s the one section of the memo that neither Savage’s sources nor DOJ, in summarizing the memo in the white paper, included: section IV, which considers whether killing Awlaki would violate 18 USC 956(a)‘s prohibition on conspiring within the US to carry out kidnapping or murder overseas. I find that curious and, because they appear to be suppressing it, worthy of more examination. Does the apparently consistent effort not to acknowledge that this might apply reflect some insecurity about the strength of this argument?

Like Obi Wan, Osama bin Laden Has Come Back More Powerful Than Ever Before

In a piece that serves only to claim we need even more invasive online surveillance because we’ve made al Qaeda more insidious than before Osama bin Laden died, Michael Hirsh tries to make Abu Musab al-Suri the new boogeyman (who, as J.M. Berger notes, may not even be alive!).

The truth is much grimmer. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts today believe that the death of bin Laden and the decimation of the Qaida “core” in Pakistan only set the stage for a rebirth of al-Qaida as a global threat. Its tactics have morphed into something more insidious and increasingly dangerous as safe havens multiply in war-torn or failed states—at exactly the moment we are talking about curtailing the National Security Agency’s monitoring capability. And the jihadist who many terrorism experts believe is al-Qaida’s new strategic mastermind, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre that means “the Syrian”), has a diametrically different approach that emphasizes quantity over quality. The red-haired, blue-eyed former mechanical engineer was born in Aleppo in 1958 as Mustafa Setmariam Nasar; he has lived in France and Spain. Al-Suri is believed to have helped plan the 2004 train bombings in Madrid and the 2005 bombings in London—and has been called the “Clausewitz” of the new al-Qaida.

[snip]

But the agency’s opponents may not realize that the practice they most hope to stop—its seemingly indiscriminate scouring of phone data and emails—is precisely what intelligence officials say they need to detect the kinds of plots al-Suri favors.

[snip]

And the consensus of senior defense and intelligence officials in the U.S. government is that NSA surveillance may well be the only thing that can stop the next terrorist from blowing apart innocent Americans, as happened in Boston last April. “Al-Qaida is far more a problem a dozen years after 9/11 than it was back then,” [Navy Postgraduate School expert John] Arquilla says.

[snip]

Officials also say they need more intelligence than ever to determine which of the multifarious new jihadist groups is a true threat. “The really difficult strategic question for us is which one of these groups do we take on,” [Michael] Hayden says. “If you jump too quickly and you put too much of a generic American face on it, then you may make them mad at us when they weren’t before. So we are going to need a pretty nuanced and sophisticated understanding of where there these new groups are going and where we need to step up and intervene.”

Some officials suggest that to do that—to discriminate carefully between the terrorists who are directly targeting U.S. interests and those who aren’t—the United States needs to step up, not slow down, the NSA’s monitoring of potential targets. [my emphasis]

Hirsh doesn’t seem to notice it, but even while he quotes former and current architects of our counterterrorism strategy like Michael Hayden and Mike Rogers, if his tale is to be believed, you have to also believe those former and current counterterrorism leaders committed these grave counterterrorism failures:

  • Allowing no fewer than 25 failed states to flourish, especially in Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Iraq
  • Failing to win or even establish governance in Afghanistan
  • Rendering al-Suri to Syria where he may or may not have been let free
  • Taking on Bashar al-Assad (who the article admits provided us counterterrorism support, including presumably proxy torturing al-Suri) even while not backing dictators who provide counterterrorism support during the Arab Spring
  • Abandoning Syrian rebels to Assad

Then Hirsh goes on to recite the debunked claims about how useful the Section 215 dragnet is (though curiously, he doesn’t mention Basaaly Moalin, perhaps because elsewhere Harold Koh admits that even most members of al-Shabaab aren’t members of al Qaeda, much less those who materially support al-Shabaab), how that would have (and, the implication is) and is the only thing that might have prevented 9/11.

Hirsh doesn’t even seem to notice that he repeats the claim that only NSA dragnets can prevent a Boston Marathon attack, yet NSA dragnets didn’t prevent the Boston Marathon attack.

Obviously, the whole thing is just as Mike Rogers/Michael Hayden sponsored advertisement to pass DiFi’s Fake FISA Fix (the article doesn’t address why she doesn’t just accept the status quo).

But in the process, Hirsh has instead laid out solid evidence we should never trust the people who’ve been running our war on terror for the last 12 years, because, if even a fraction of what he claims is true, they’ve actually made us far less safe.

Harold Koh Relitigates the Argument He Already Lost

The NYT thinks the takeaway “news” of Harold Koh’s speech on Forever War is his call for more transparency on drone killing. Yet that Koh supports more transparency on drones is not news. Daniel Klaidman has been reporting that since January 2012.

What’s newsworthy about this call for transparency, though, is how shrill it is.

But since then, to be candid, this Administration has not done enough to be transparent about legal standards and the decisionmaking process that it has been applying. It had not been sufficiently transparent to the media, to Congress, and to our allies. Because the Administration has been so opaque, a left-right coalition running from Code Pink to Rand Paul has now spoken out against the drone program, fostering a growing perception that the program is not lawful and necessary, but illegal, unnecessary and out of control. The Administration must take responsibility for this failure, because its persistent and counterproductive lack of transparency has led to the release of necessary pieces of its public legal defense too little and too late.

As a result, the public has increasingly lost track of the real issue, which is not drone technology per se, but the need for transparent, agreedupon domestic and international legal process and standards.

Perhaps this shrillness is why Koh ends the speech with a grandiose invocation of our “better angels.”

Because I am an American who loves his country, I have served it for ten years of my professional career. My former professor and former Legal Adviser Abram Chayes once said, after he had sued the United States government from the academy, “I have always thought there is nothing wrong with an American lawyer holding the United States to its own best standards.” It is in that spirit that tonight, from this important podium, I call my country to its own best values and principles. As President Lincoln famously said, there is still time–indeed, it is high time– for Americans once again to answer to the “better angels” of our national nature.

Though it should be noted that Attorney Abe Lincoln appealed for us to answer to our better angels at the beginning of his service in the Executive Branch, not after he had left that position of influence (something John Wilkes Booth prevented in any case). Why is Harold Koh saying this now?

After all, this battle, the battles for transparency, for “discipline” in the drone program, and for closing Gitmo, are all battles he fought and lost while he was still in government.

It’s how Koh relitigates the last of those battles, closing Gitmo, I find most interesting. He calls for the appointment of a Greg Craig type to implement the plan Craig tried to implement himself in the first year of the Obama Administration.

First, and foremost, he must appoint a senior White House official with the clout and commitment to actually make Guantanamo closure happen. There has not been such a person at the White House since Greg Craig left as White House Counsel in early 2010. There must be someone close to the President, with a broad enough mandate and directly answerable to him, who wakes up each morning thinking about how to shrink the Guantanamo population and close the camp.

Second, this White House Envoy need not develop a new paradigm for closing Guantanamo. He or she merely needs to implement the National Archives framework that the President announced three years ago. The White House Envoy should lead the Administration’s efforts to implement the three-part framework for closure of the Guantanamo detention facility specified in the President’s 2010 speech at the National Archives. That speech described a framework for how this closure could happen: through diplomatic transfers of those individuals who could be safely transferred, prosecution of those who can be tried before civilian courts when possible and military commissions where that is the only option, and third, by commencing the long-overdue legally mandated periodic review of so-called Law of War Detainees to see if any can be released, because of changes either in their attitude or in the conditions of the country to which they could be transferred.

Now, I’m all in favor of closing Gitmo and this might be one way to do it. Koh actually improves on the prior plan by admitting the indefinite detainees will have to be released as the war is over, which is legally correct but misapprehends why they’re not being released and why we have to have a Forever War to justify keeping them silent and imprisoned forever.

But Koh’s map for closing Gitmo also misrepresents why appointing Greg Craig himself to carry out the Gitmo task didn’t work. Continue reading

Declaring “Wars” the President Didn’t Ask For

I’ll probably have a few posts on Harold Koh’s speech opposing what he calls the “Forever War” at the Oxford Union. For now, I want to look at his argument against a new Authorization to Use Military Force.

I strongly disagree with those who claim that new legislation is now necessary to authorize the Administration to fight against new enemies. The burden of proving that such legislation would be either necessary or wise should fall on the proponents. As a lifelong international and constitutional lawyer who has worked on these legal issues for a decade, I see no proof that the U.S. lacks legal authority to defend itself against those with whom we are genuinely at war or who pose to us a genuine and imminent threat. Significantly, Congress has never declared war against an enemy when the President has not asked for such a declaration. Nor would adopting new domestic legislation make actions in preemptive self-defense lawful under international law. And unless we can clearly define just who the new enemies are–and why existing legal authorities are insufficient to defend ourselves against them–we have no basis for passing new laws that would perpetuate the Forever War against shadowy foes whose association with those who have attacked us on 9/11 cannot be proven.

It’s hard to tell where the boundaries between good faith and deception lie here. After all, in several places in the speech — including this passage purportedly distinguishing what Obama has done from what Bush did — Koh’s language admits the possibility that Congressional sanction for military force is not the only authority Obama is working with (though he does admit that Congressional authority is one source of authority).

First, the Obama Administration has not treated the post-9/11 conflict as a Global War on Terror to which no law applies, in which the United States is authorized to use force anywhere, against anyone. Instead, it has acknowledged that its authority under domestic law derives from Acts of Congress, not just the President’s s vague constitutional powers.

And so when he says things like “I see no proof that the U.S. lacks legal authority to defend itself against those with whom we are genuinely at war or who pose to us a genuine and imminent threat,” it seems likely he’s preserving the ability to rely on Article II authority for something called an “imminent threat.” The same is true when he invokes “existing legal authorities” when he talks about fighting people who are clearly not Al Qaeda.

In other words, even while he seems to be opposed to treating our newer enemies as war opponents, he also seems to be reserving the right to rely on Article II authority to go after them. Which is not necessarily a better proposition for those who truly value other tools rather than killing.

That’s why I’m struck by this sentence.

Significantly, Congress has never declared war against an enemy when the President has not asked for such a declaration.

What Koh seems to be worried about is shifting the balance of the Youngstown test — whether Presidential power is expansive or limited — of the AUMF itself (Koh pretends authorizing military force is the same thing as declaring war, but in any case, last I checked, the authority to declare war belonged to Article I).

That’s true, first of all, because the way the existing AUMF was written — which allows the President to determine the enemy and has been interpreted consistently but wrongly as authorizing war powers here in the US. A new AUMF might (though probably wouldn’t) explicitly clarify the limits to war powers in the US or at least with US citizens.

But as even the 2012 NDAA showed, it can work the other way, with Congress requiring that Obama default to military detention and commissions with any new terrorist suspects. Mind you, Obama took the limits on what he could do in Gitmo far, far more seriously than he did the requirement that DOD give every one of its detainees a meaningful review, so he’s already picking and choosing what legislative requirements he fulfills. But in theory at least, Congress can mandate the President treat certain targets as enemies of war, rather than criminals.

But that, it seems to me, is ultimately what this debate about a new AUMF comes down to. Koh and, presumably, others who have served the President won’t want Congress to change the delicate balance that offers the President a great deal of flexibility to operate under both the AUMF and Article II. And to some degree, they’re right to worry about what batshit stuff the Lindsey Grahams of the world will mandate. But I suspect they’re just as worried that a new AUMF will put real limits to the President’s current fairly unlimited authority.

Look, I don’t trust Congress to write a new AUMF either. If they do one, it’s going to contain all manner of batshittery.

But bizarrely, in our crazy world, passing a new one might actually be a more effective way to limit what the President can and can’t do as anything else that has been tried. If we want to force the Executive Branch to stop waging war against Americans in America, we’re going to have to do so explicitly.

The Author of the White Paper, Stuart Delery, Argues Selective, Misleading Disclosures Should Not Be Checked by FOIA

As I noted in this post, Daniel Klaidman has identified the author of the targeted killing white paper as Stuart Delery.

At the time he wrote the white paper, Delery was Senior Counselor to Attorney General Eric Holder. Last March, he became Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Division of DOJ and, in the absence of an Assistant AG (or, as far as I can tell, even a nominee, in which case this feels a lot like what George Bush did with Steven Bradbury when he left the Acting head in charge for years on end), the Acting head of the Civil Division.

As I also noted, Delery actually argued the government’s case in the ACLU’s Drone FOIA on September 20, 2012. Now, that’s the ACLU’s other drone FOIA, not the one specifically requesting information that should have included the unclassified white paper Delery wrote if DOJ had answered the FOIA in good faith.

Nevertheless, it asked for closely related information:

The Request seeks a variety of records relating to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct targeted killings, including the legal basis for the strikes and any legal limits on who may be targeted; where targeted drone strikes can occur; civilian casualties; which agencies or other non-governmental entities may be involved in conducting targeted killings; how the results of individual drone strikes are assessed after the fact; who may operate and direct targeted killing strikes; and how those involved in operating the program are supervised, overseen or disciplined.

At the time ACLU submitted the request on January 13, 2010, Delery was in the Deputy Attorney General’s Office. DOJ responded to its part of the FOIA on February 3, 2010 — 16 days after DOJ worked on a briefing on targeted killing Eric Holder would make to President Obama and 15 days after he delivered that briefing — by claiming only FBI would have responsive records. When FBI searched its records it found none. DOJ made that initial response 6 days before someone in DAG — Delery’s office — wrote an email to OLC about the Holder briefing.

So while DOJ’s non-responsiveness in the drone FOIA is not as egregious as it was in the Awlaki FOIA, it’s still clear that the department Delery worked in, if not (as in the Awlaki FOIA) Delery’s work itself, was shielded from FOIA by a disingenuous FOIA response.

Yet Delery, the Acting head of the Civil Division, nevertheless decided he should argue the government’s case. Technically, Delery was arguing for CIA’s right to pretend it hadn’t confirmed its role in drone strikes in spite of repeated public statements doing just that, so he wasn’t defending the non-disclosure of his Department’s work, per se. Still, it’s not generally considered good form for a lawyer to argue a matter in which he has been so closely involved. He did so, however, at a time before we knew just how centrally involved he was in this matter.

With all that in mind, I thought I’d look at what Delery said to the DC Circuit.

MR. DELERY: May it please the Court, Stuart Delery for the Appellee, CIA.

This Court in several cases has identified two important interests that the strict test for official confirmation serves. It protects the Government’s vital interest in information related to national security and foreign affairs, and it advances FOIA’s interest in disclosure by not punishing officials for attempting to educate the public on matters of public concern because otherwise officials would be reluctant to speak on important national security matters.

Here, the Government has acknowledged that the United States makes efforts to target specific terrorists as part of its counter-terrorism operations, that as part of those operations or, in some cases, those operations involve the use of remotely piloted aircraft or drones, and it’s also described the legal framework and standards that apply in this context in a series of speeches and interviews including by the President’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, but also the Attorney General, the legal advisor to the State Department, the General Council of DOD, and as has been  referenced in yesterday’s or the recent exchange of 28J letters including a recent interview by the President. But, there’s been no official acknowledgment one way or the other about whether the CIA is involved in these particular operations. [my emphasis]

Delery suggests that a series of Leon Panetta comments (both before and after he moved from CIA to DOD) making the CIA’s role in drone killing clear should not amount to confirmation that the CIA is involved in drone killing because, he says, FOIA’s interest in disclosure should not punish public officials for attempting to educate the public.

Or, to put it another way, the Administration giving a bunch of self-serving speeches should not then make the topic of those speeches subject to FOIA because, in Delery’s mind, that would work contrary to FOIA’s support for disclosure because it would punish officials for giving self-serving speeches.

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Harold Koh and the First Office of Legal Counsel Memo

When I compared what appeared in Eric Holder’s March 2012 targeted killing speech and the targeted killing white paper, I discovered two sections that appear in Holder but not the white paper: a section on leaders as targets.

Furthermore, it is entirely lawful – under both United States law and applicable law of war principles – to target specific senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associated forces. This is not a novel concept. In fact, during World War II, the United States tracked the plane flying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – the commander of Japanese forces in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway – and shot it down specifically because he was on board. As I explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee following the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the same rules apply today.

And a section asserting that the technology of drones doesn’t change the legal principles behind the use of lethal force.

These principles do not forbid the use of stealth or technologically advanced weapons.   In fact, the use of advanced weapons may help to ensure that the best intelligence is available for planning and carrying out operations, and that the risk of civilian casualties can be minimized or avoided altogether.

But that language was not new to the Holder speech; it appears as two of the main bullet points in Harold Koh’s March 2010 speech addressing, in part, our use of drones.

First, some have suggested that the very act of targeting a particular leader of an enemy force in an armed conflict must violate the laws of war. But individuals who are part of such an armed group are belligerents and, therefore, lawful targets under international law. During World War II, for example, American aviators tracked and shot down the airplane carrying the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, who was also the leader of enemy forces in the Battle of Midway. This was a lawful operation then, and would be if conducted today. Indeed, targeting particular individuals serves to narrow the focus when force is employed and to avoid broader harm to civilians and civilian objects.

Second, some have challenged the very use of advanced weapons systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, for lethal operations. But the rules that govern targeting do not turn on the type of weapon system used, and there is no prohibition under the laws of war on the use of technologically advanced weapons systems in armed conflict– such as pilotless aircraft or so-called smart bombs– so long as they are employed in conformity with applicable laws of war. Indeed, using such advanced technologies can ensure both that the best intelligence is available for planning operations, and that civilian casualties are minimized in carrying out such operations.

In addition to situating drone strikes within law of war principles, Koh also addressed two other issues that show up in the white paper (and Holder’s speech): due process and assassinations.

Third, some have argued that the use of lethal force against specific individuals fails to provide adequate process and thus constitutes unlawful extrajudicial killing. But a state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force. Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise. In my experience, the principles of distinction and proportionality that the United States applies are not just recited at meetings. They are implemented rigorously throughout the planning and execution of lethal operations to ensure that such operations are conducted in accordance with all applicable law.

Fourth and finally, some have argued that our targeting practices violate domestic law, in particular, the long-standing domestic ban on assassinations. But under domestic law, the use of lawful weapons systems—consistent with the applicable laws of war—for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful, and hence does not constitute “assassination.”

I raise all this because Koh’s speech comes between the reported date of the first targeted killing memo — February 2010 — and the date of the second one. (h/t to Snoopdido for pointing this out)

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Targeted Killing Timeline

A timeline!

I’ve been working on this timeline for almost nine months, trying to pull together the known dates about strikes against Americans, the evidence supporting the strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, the legal cases surrounding both targeted killing and torture, to which targeted killing is linked via the Memorandum of Notification, and Congressional efforts to exercise oversight.

September 17, 2001: George Bush signs Memorandum of Notification (henceforth, Gloves Come Off MON) authorizing a range of counterterrorism techniques, including torture and targeted killing.

September 18, 2001: Congress passes the Authorization to Use Military Force.

November 3, 2002: US citizen Kamal Derwish killed in drone purportedly targeting Abu Ali al-Harithi.

Late 2008: Ruben Shumpert reported killed in Somalia.

June 24, 2009: Leon Panetta gets briefed on assassination squad program.

June 26, 2009: HPSCI passes a funding authorization report expanding the Gang of Eight briefings.

July 8, 2009: The Administration responds with an insulting appeal to a “fundamental compact” between Congress and the President on intelligence matters.

July 8, 2009: Silvestre Reyes announces CIA lied to Congress.

October 26, 2009: British High Court first orders British government to release language on Binyam Mohamed’s treatment.

October 28, 2009: FBI kills Imam Luqman Asmeen Abdullah during Dearborn, MI arrest raid.

October 29, 2009: Hearing on declassifying mention of Gloves Come Off MON before Judge Alvin Hellerstein; in it, Hellerstein reveals NSA James Jones has submitted declaration to keep mention of MON secret.

November 5, 2009: Nidal Hasan attacks Fort Hood, killing 13.

December 24, 2009: JSOC tries but fails to hit Anwar al-Awlaki. On that day, the IC did not yet believe him to be operational.

December 25, 2009: With Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attack, FBI develops full understanding of Awlaki’s operational goals.

January 2, 2010: In conversation with David Petraeus, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks as if Awlaki, whom he refers to as a cleric, not an AQAP member, was a designated target of December 24 attack.

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Assume Obama Drone Rules Dead

There’s been a series of moves and trial balloons among Obama’s national security lawyers that lead me to assume that any effort to apply some regularity and the patina of legality to the drone program is dead.

First, after some reporting that he might replace Eric Holder as Attorney General, DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson instead announced his resignation, effective the moment the New Year’s ball drops.

Mr. Johnson, who was general counsel to the Air Force during the Clinton administration, was a key legal adviser and fund-raiser for then-Senator Obama during his run for the presidency in the 2008 campaign. On Thursday, he sent Mr. Obama a letter saying that he would resign effective midnight on Dec. 31.

“Thank you for the opportunity to be part of your campaign, your transition, and your Administration,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “Thank you also for the best clients I will ever have: Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and the men and women of the U.S. military.”

Mr. Johnson, a former prosecutor, has been mentioned as a potential attorney general should Eric H. Holder Jr. step down in Mr. Obama’s second term. That speculation has been centered more among his colleagues in the Pentagon rather than among civilian law enforcement officials, however.

In his current job, Mr. Johnson worked closely on internal debates about the scope and limits of the government’s power to hold terrorism suspects in indefinite detention and to target them with drone strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia. In those debates he generally sought broader latitude for the government than some others, notably State Department officials.

But Mr. Johnson took a more restrained position than some colleagues during the NATO-led air war in Libya. As American participation in the effort neared an apparent 60-day limit imposed by the War Powers Resolution for hostilities that had not been authorized by Congress, he urged pulling back on direct combat activities – like missile strikes – but was overruled by the White House.

Now, as Charlie Savage notes, the reports that Johnson might be named Attorney General seemed to come from Johnson’s backers, not the White House. And as Savage reports, Johnson’s role has been mixed. While he pushed for more flexibility–particularly with drones themselves–he did try to hew to rule of law in other areas. And he recently suggested that the AUMF the government has operated under will one day (I would argue, already has) effectively been vacated because core al Qaeda has been disrupted so thoroughly.

I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point – a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.

At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an “armed conflict” against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda, or are parts of groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda, for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community – with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats.

Once core al Qaeda has been decimated (which they have been), Johnson said, the military must become solely a reserve force, with intelligence and law enforcement leading the fight.

In many ways, the speech reads, in hindsight, like a valedictory, listing Johnson’s personal accomplishments at DOD (notably, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell). But it also calls for conventional legal limits to the war on terror.

And then, days after delivering that speech, Johnson was not only not named to replace Holder, but was himself on the way out the door.

Then the day after Johnson’s departure announcement, came State Department Counselor Harold Koh’s.

That one I find more troubling. While it might just be tied to Yale’s desire to have Koh do his job again (though those transitions usually happen in August, not December), and while Hillary’s departure may explain Koh’s departure (though Hillary isn’t leaving for some time yet), Koh’s departure comes just weeks after Scott Shane’s report that the attempt to put order to the drone program–which had first been reported before the election–had stalled after the election. I suggested then that the Shane report might be an effort from those trying to put more legal regularity to the drone program–an effort undoubtedly led by Koh–to force John Brennan to carry through on his earlier plans. Matthew Aid confirmed that the drone rules, at least, if not the leak to Shane, came from those in State (again, this must be Koh) and DOJ who recognized the drone program didn’t really fly under international law.

A State Department official who recently left his post for a better paying job in the private sector admitted that there is deep concern at State and Justice that sooner or later, a court in the U.S. or in The Hague will issue a ruling on the question of the legality of these missions, which many in Washington fear will go against the U.S. government position that these strikes are legal.

So whether Koh left because he lost this fight with Brennan or because of academic schedules and Hillary’s upcoming departure, in his absence, the drone rules Koh pushed for are far less likely to happen.

Then there’s the news–this one, unlike reports of Johnson as Attorney General, sourced to the Administration itself–that Stephen Preston, currently CIA’s General Counsel, may replace Johnson at DOD.

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The Moral Rectitude Assassination Czar

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Back in April and May, when John Brennan seized control of the drone targeting process purportedly in the interest of “showing the American public that al-Qaida targets are chosen only after painstaking and exhaustive debate,” an extensive NYT articleproviding a picture of drone targeting as done before Brennan had consolidated control of it–described Brennan in religious terms. Among other descriptions offered of the guy in charge of drone assassinations, Harold Koh described him as a priest.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

That same formulation–moral rectitude–shows up in Karen DeYoung’s profile of John Brennan today.

Some White House aides describe him as a nearly priest-like presence in their midst, with a moral depth leavened by a dry, Irish wit.

One CIA colleague, former general counsel John Rizzo, recalled his rectitude surfacing in unexpected ways. Brennan once questioned Rizzo’s use of the “BCC” function in the agency’s e-mail system to send a blind copy of a message to a third party without the primary recipient’s knowledge.

“He wasn’t joking,” Rizzo said. “He regarded that as underhanded.”

That’s not all that surprising. After all, DeYoung may have talked to Koh for this article, or “moral rectitude” may just be a well rehearsed line inside the White House.

Having anyone question Rizzo’s ethics, however, is no evidence of moral rectitude.

Indeed, the article–and the last set of similar articles–suggests Brennan does not exercise the moral rectitude the anonymous White House sources claim. Last time around, after all, the articles told how Brennan shut down signature strikes and war in Yemen. But by the time the articles came out, he had approved them.

This time around, the article notes Brennan’s belief CIA shouldn’t be in the paramilitary business, but approved such activities operating out of Djibouti. He is about to approve more drones because Petraeus wants them rather than fixing our HUMINT weaknesses. Similarly, Brennan’s moral rectitude on Mali involvement has faded.

It’s in light of this false myth of Brennan’s moral rectitude that I want to look more closely at the most remarked lines of this story.

In them, an anonymous Administration official seemingly shows regret for the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (as I noted at the time, the big profiles in May both were utterly silent about Abdulrahman).

Two administration officials said that CIA drones were responsible for two of the most controversial attacks in Yemen in 2011 — one that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a prominent figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and a second a few days later that killed his 16-year-old son, also an American citizen. One of the officials called the second attack “an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him.”

Note, last year, Greg Miller reported JSOC carried out the Abdulrahman strike.

On Sept. 30, Awlaki was killed in a missile strike carried out by the CIA under Title 50 authorities — which govern covert intelligence operations — even though officials said it was initially unclear whether an agency or JSOC drone had delivered the fatal blow. A second U.S. citizen, an al-Qaeda propagandist who had lived in North Carolina, was among those killed.

The execution was nearly flawless, officials said. Nevertheless, when a similar strike was conducted just two weeks later, the entire protocol had changed. The second attack, which killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, was carried out by JSOC under Title 10 authorities that apply to the use of military force.

The detail matters, because ongoing FOIAs for information on Abdulrahman’s death face a higher bar if CIA carried out the attack than if JSOC did (Brennan’s laughable claim to want DOD to carry out these strikes so they will be transparent is another of the instances in the story where his moral rectitude proves infinitely flexible).

But it’s the statement itself–”an outrageous mistake. . . . They were going after the guy sitting next to him”–that I find even more laughable. Partly it’s word choice. Who says “outrageous mistake”? Normally, you’d expect someone to say “horrible mistake,” because if it’s a “mistake” then there’s no intent or poor judgment to get outraged about (unless the targeting here, overseen by Brennan personally, was particularly incompetent–but that’s the kind of thing these Kill List articles assure us could never happen).

Besides, according to the rules exposed in the last set of Kill List articles, Abdulrahman qualifies as a legitimate target. He’s a military aged male. Therefore, according to the rules of targeting, hitting him wasn’t a mistake at all. He was a militant considered an acceptable target by the moral rectitude Assassination Czar.

And all that’s before you consider that every other American killed by drones–Kamal Derwish, who purportedly died as “collateral damage” in the Abu Ali al-Harithi strike; Anwar al-Awlaki, who was first missed on December 24, 2009 in a strike purportedly targeting someone else, WikiLeaks evidence to the contrary notwithstanding (at a time when the Intelligence Community didn’t consider Awlaki operational); and Samir Khan, who died as collateral damage in the Awlaki strike–were or were going to be collateral damage at one point. That’s a lot of collaterally damaged inconvenient Americans.

Do people at the White House regret that they keep getting questions about the dead American teenager? Do they regret the almost nonexistent political fallout that has resulted? Do they feel a tinge of guilt that their rules make killing a teenager legal? Perhaps.

But the performance of morality in the Abdulrahman statement–like the moral rectitude rehearsed once again in a John Brennan article–is unconvincing.

Angler 2.0: Brennan Wields His Puppet Strings Differently

As I said earlier, the parallel between the Jo Becker/Scott Shane Angler 2.0 story and the earlier series by Becker and Barton Gellman is hard to miss.

But I’m very interested in how the stories are structured differently. With Angler 1.0, the story was very clearly about Dick Cheney and the methods he used to manipulate Bush into following his advice. Here, the story is really about John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, portrayed deep in thought and foregrounding Obama in the article’s picture. Indeed, halfway through, the story even gives biographical background on Brennan, the classic “son of Irish immigrants” story, along with Harold Koh’s dubious endorsement of Brennan’s “moral rectitude.”

But instead of telling the story of John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, the story pitches Obama as the key decision-maker–a storyline Brennan has always been one of the most aggressive pitchmen for, including when he confirmed information on the Anwar al-Awlaki strike he shouldn’t have. In a sense, then, Brennan has done Cheney one better: seed a story of his own power, but sell it as a sign of the President’s steeliness.

The Silent Sources for the Story

I already pointed out how, after presenting unambiguous evidence of Brennan’s past on-the-record lies, the story backed off calling him on it.

But there are other ways in which this story shifts the focus away from Brennan.

A remarkable number of the sources for the story spoke on the record: Tom Donilon, Cameron Munter, Dennis Blair, Bill Daley, Jeh Johnson, Michael Hayden, Jim Jones, Harold Koh, Eric Holder, Michael Leiter, John Rizzo, and John Bellinger. But it’s not until roughly the 3,450th word of a 6,000 word article that Brennan is first quoted–and that’s to largely repeat the pre-emptive lies of his drone speech from last month.

“The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to U.S. persons’ lives,” Mr. Brennan said in an interview. “It is the option of last recourse. So the president, and I think all of us here, don’t like the fact that people have to die. And so he wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: The infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”

That is the only on-the-record direct quote from Brennan in the entire article, in spite of the centrality of Brennan to the story.

And I would bet several of the sources quoted anonymously in the section describing Obama’s method of counting the dead (which still ignores the women and children) are Brennan: “a top White House adviser” describing how sharp Obama was in the face of the first civilian casualties; “a senior administration official” claiming, in the face of credible evidence to the contrary, that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan were in “single digits.”

Note, too, the reference to a memo his campaign national security advisors wrote him.

“Pragmatism over ideology,” his campaign national security team had advised in a memo in March 2008. It was counsel that only reinforced the president’s instincts.

The memo was written not long after Brennan started playing a more central role among Obama’s campaign advisors. But the story makes no mention of his presumed role in it. Further, in describing Jeh Johnson to introduce a quote, the piece notes that he was “a campaign adviser” (it doesn’t say Johnson was also focused on voter protection). But it does not note that Brennan, too, was a key campaign advisor, one with an exclusively national security focus.

Nor does the story note, when it describes how Obama “deployed his legal skills … to preserve trials in civilian courts” it was John Brennan making that case, not the Attorney General.

In other words, in several places in this story, Brennan plays a key role that is downplayed.

The Pro-Drone Narrator

Given that fact, I’m really interested in the several places where the story adopts a pro-drone viewpoint (it does adopt a more critical stance in the narrative voice at the end).

For example, the story claims, in the first part of the story, that the drone strikes “have eviscerated Al Qaeda” without presenting any basis for that claim. This, in spite of the fact that al Qaeda has expanded in Yemen since we’ve started hitting it with drones.

Later, the article uncritically accepts the claim that the drone–regardless of the targeting that goes into using it–is a “precision weapon” that constitutes a rejection of a “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

The care that Mr. Obama and his counterterrorism chief take in choosing targets, and their reliance on a precision weapon, the drone, reflect his pledge at the outset of his presidency to reject what he called the Bush administration’s “false choice between our safety and our ideals.”

For fucks sake! This article describes how the White House has adopted a “guilt by association” approach to drone targeting. Continue reading

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emptywheel .@ddayen on PR settlements "PR moves masquerading as crackdowns do violence to the very concept of justice." http://t.co/FMu92Gy9n3
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emptywheel Ho hum, another bank -- Bank of America -- gets to pay its way out of crimes common street dealers do hard time for. http://t.co/Aq9CdDsWZK
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bmaz @chriswnews @brahmresnik @GovBrewer Always works out so well when malignant governmental agencies investigate themselves.
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emptywheel @Atrios But Cross Fit abs!
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emptywheel @BradMossEsq That's very simple English. If you contest that English than by necessity you are accusing Clapper of lying. @konklone
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emptywheel @BradMossEsq These are facts: 1) Clapper said he declassed bc Snowden. 2) Those of us observing that are not engaged in graymail.
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emptywheel @BradMossEsq There you go again, accusing Clapper of lying! @konklone
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bmaz @chrisgeidner @twpolk I know Michael Kiefer, the AZ Republic reporter, very well. I'll take his word over Tom Horne's press flack all day.
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JimWhiteGNV RT @AymanM: "There is literally no safe place for civilians in #Gaza" - UN OCHA Spokesperson Jens Laerke @UNRWA #israel #hamas #palestine
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emptywheel @BradMossEsq Glad you've finally conceded that you were ignoring the facts to accuse others of graymail. @konklone
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JimWhiteGNV Pesky human shields everywhere RT @cnnbrk: Strike hits U.N. shelter in Gaza; U.N. official confirms deaths, injuries. http://t.co/uZyUbEhlkc
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JimWhiteGNV Apologists just get so tired these days.
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