“At the Highest Levels of the U.S. Government” … Like the President?

Update: Obama did, in fact, take responsibility for ordering the killing.

And as President, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki.

There’s something missing from Eric Holder’s 8 paragraphs justifying the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki.

In spite of the many sanctioned leaks asserting that President Obama “insist[s] on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,'” Holder never explicitly says Obama did so with Awlaki. The Attorney General attributes the decision itself to “high-level U.S. government officials,” “senior officials,” and “senior officials” again.

Here’s how he describes the review process:

The decision to use lethal force is one of the gravest that our government, at every level, can face. The operation to target Anwar al-Aulaqi was thus subjected to an exceptionally rigorous interagency legal review: not only did I and other Department of Justice lawyers conclude after a thorough and searching review that the operation was lawful, but so too did other departments and agencies within the U.S. government.

The decision to target Anwar al-Aulaqi was additionally subjected to extensive policy review at the highest level of the U.S. Government, and senior U.S. officials also briefed the appropriate committees of Congress on the possibility of using lethal force against al-Aulaqi. Indeed, the Administration informed the relevant congressional oversight committees that it had approved the use of lethal force against al-Aulaqi in February 2010 — well over a year before the operation in question — and the legal justification was subsequently explained in detail to those committees, well before action was taken against Aulaqi. This extensive outreach is consistent with the Administration’s strong and continuing commitment to congressional oversight of our counterterrorism operations — oversight which ensures, as the President stated during his State of the Union address, that our actions are “consistent with our laws and systems of checks and balances.”

Sure, the code words meaning “the President” are in there: “at every level,” “at the highest level of the U.S. Government.” It quotes Obama’s State of the Union address at the very end, like a flourish detached from the nasty killing bit.

And the process described here, where “the Administration” informs the intelligence committees of the lethal force operations “it had approved,” is clearly that of a covert op, which requires the President’s to inform Congress of covert ops he has approved.

But unlike DOJ and the congressional committees, he’s not named in the decision process that ended up killing Awlaki. (Though Holder does later say that Obama approved the Disposition Matrix which he describes will soon be briefed to Congress, which of course implies Presidential approval for all the drone deaths to come, but not Awlaki’s.)

This might be a picayune observation if this Administration had not, secretly, made almost unprecedented efforts to keep a short phrase indicating the President (Bush) had authorized the torture program.

In his letter, Holder references Obama’s Archives Speech pledge that “whenever possible, my administration will make all information available to the American people so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable” (though in Holder’s letter, the “us” becomes “their Government”). He ends this letter by assuring its recipients “that the President and his national security team are mindful of this Administration’s pledge to public accountability for our counterterrorism efforts.”

But on the specific issue of Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing, this letter allows Obama (along with the CIA and DOD, presumably to avoid helping the ACLU in its FOIA — though it may be too late) to avoid any accountability.

Perhaps tomorrow Obama will stand before a bunch of cameras and admit “I personally ordered an American citizen to be drone killed.” But this letter feels like an effort to help him avoid publicly accepting just that responsibility.

Update: As QuietAmerican reminded me, Obama is quoted in that NYT piece as saying the decision to kill Awlaki was “an easy one.”

16 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    It’s probably a much easier decision when all the information comes from the same source, which guarantees (but the source will never state) that it’s biased.

  2. ess emm says:

    But Marcy, if it was a covert operation why would Holder need to say it was “consistent with Yemeni sovereignty”? Why would he raise the “consistent with applicable law of war principles” (notice he doesnt say law) for justification of the actions of a civilian agency?

    He’s deliberately running together a civilian agency that can only follow constitutional orders and the Armed Forces. And that’s why he doesnt come out and say who carried out the orders.

    And of course DOJ made sure that the 3rd branch of government did not have any part of the decision process. Not to mention their weapons of choice caused “unnecessary suffering” for the other 3 Americans (and what about Kamal Derwish, anyway?).

  3. Snoopdido says:

    The current New York Times article by Charlie Savage and Peter Baker (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/23/us/us-acknowledges-killing-4-americans-in-drone-strikes.html?hp&_r=0) also reports the following:

    “The lifting of the veil of official secrecy over the Awlaki killing could have broad legal ramifications. The Justice Department on Wednesday afternoon dropped an effort to throw out a California lawsuit seeking documents related to the killing, while a judge here ordered the government to address the disclosure in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Mr. Awlaki’s family.”

    The link to the Justice Department document is: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/703301-californiaawlaki.html

    In that document the Justice Department asks that it be allowed to provide a modified response to the plaintiff’s FOIA request.

  4. lefty665 says:

    from the NYT:

    In his letter to Congressional leaders, Mr. Holder confirmed that the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who died in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen. Mr. Holder also wrote that United States forces had killed three other Americans who “were not specifically targeted.”


    Mr. Holder defended the actions, saying they were consistent with American law and taken only after careful consideration. “Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during the current conflict, it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted,”

    Help please lawyers. How does this justify killing US citizens, including a 16 year old boy? What do you call those three “not specifically targeted” killings? Are they murder, homicide, manslaughter? Or are they just aok because the kid was “not specifically targeted” although not “immune from being targeted”.

  5. Cregan says:

    No, he will say, “I can assure you that I knew nothing about the drone letter until I heard about it in the press.”

  6. GKJames says:

    Holder’s latest is merely of a piece with the previous versions by him and others: this is lawful because we say it is. (That he’d cite the execrable DOJ “White Paper” in support is embarrassing.) There should be zero expectation of anything substantive from Obama later today.

  7. ess emm says:

    The most basic fact is missing from Holder’s letter:

    Who carried out the order, CIA or the Armed Forces?

  8. lefty665 says:

    @Phil Perspective: I see, it’s “I did not murder that boy” because the missile didn’t have his name on it.

    Perhaps Holder’s reference to WWII helps explain it too.

    Someone can be targeted and killed, but just because someone is not specifically targeted it does not make them immune from being targeted and killed.

    It’s Catch 22. Yossarian would understand it immediately.

  9. JamesJoyce says:


    “Mr. Holder defended the actions, saying they were consistent with American law and taken only after careful consideration. “Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during the current conflict, it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted,”

    It would be nice to know the specific crime (s) alleged to have been committed by the dead. The evidence which would lead reasonable minds to the same conclusion. An imminent threat to America requiring immediate action?

    Checks and balances designed to prevent “abuses of power” are being circumvented while the actions circumventing these well established checks and balances are hidden from America under the guise of national security. Dead men can’t defend themselves at trial from allegations or challenge the evidence used to establish probable cause for arrest. America is denied the facts, by a trier of fact, to hide the facts.

    I call it Fascism.

  10. lefty665 says:


    Fascism (pron.: /ˈfæʃɪzəm/) is a form of radical authoritarian nationalism[1][2] that came to prominence in mid-20th century Europe. Fascists seek to unify their nation through a totalitarian state that promotes the mass mobilization of the national community,[3][4] relying on a vanguard party to initiate a revolution to organize the nation on fascist principles.[5] Hostile to liberal democracy, socialism, and communism, fascist movements share certain common features, including the veneration of the state, a devotion to a strong leader, and an emphasis on ultranationalism, ethnocentrism, and militarism. Fascism views political violence, war, and imperialism as a means to achieve national rejuvenation[3][6][7][8] and asserts that nations and races deemed superior should attain living space by displacing ones deemed weak or inferior.[9]

    Long long ago we fought a war against Fascism.

  11. Procopius says:

    OK, so the press (or somebody) needs to start asking, “Did the President also personally authorize the drone strike that killed 16-year-old Abdulrahim Al-Awlaki? Was it ‘an easy call’?”

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