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Anwar al-Awlaki: Two Days from Finalized 302 to OLC Authorization for Execution

After a multiple year FOIA fight, Scott Shane has liberated the interrogation 302s from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Kudos to Shane and NYT.

As Shane recalls in his story on the reports, I have noted problems about the government’s public claims about Abdulmutallab’s interrogation (even aside from conflicts with his other confessions and the terms under which the interrogation took place). The reports in some ways confirm those concerns — as I’ll write in some follow-up posts. But, more important, they also answer the most fundamental ones.

Some of the reports absolutely support the government’s claim that from Abdulmutallab’s first interrogations in January 2010, he attributed the instructions to wait until he was over the US to detonate his underwear bomb to Anwar al-Awlaki, which was always a key basis for the government’s argument they could execute the cleric.

Near the end of [Abdulmutallab’s — he is referred to as UM throughout these reports] stay at the camp, Aulaqi gave UM final specific instructions: that the operation should be conducted on a U.S. airliner;

[snip]

Aulaqi told UM: “Wait until you are in the US, then bring the plane down.” [PDF 24]

As a number of people have observed, the reports also show that (aside from the isolation later alleged by Abdulmutallab’s lawyers and whatever leverage the FBI got his family to exert), the FBI and the High Value Interrogation Group got a great deal of cooperation from Abdulmutallab without physical coercion, with Abdulmutallab providing intelligence on AQAP into the summer.

In this post, though, I want to note how the reports coincide with two other events from that period of 2010.

As many of you know, there’s a big, still somewhat unsolved problem with FBI interrogations. At the time, FBI didn’t record interrogations (and they still create big loopholes around a recently imposed rule that custodial interviews must be recorded). Rather, the FBI agent would take notes and subsequently write up those notes into a “302,” which is what the FBI calls their reports on interviews.

In Abdulmutallab’s case, there was an interesting lag between the time his interrogators conducted the interrogation and when they wrote it up. For example, his January 29, 2010 interrogation (and all the ones from the subsequent intense period of interrogation), were not dictated until February 5, 2010.

And those dictations did not start to get transcribed into finished 302s until starting on February 17, 19 days after the interrogation.

Let me be clear: there is nothing suspect about the delay. The timing cues in the interrogation makes it clear these initial interrogations were full-day interrogations. Add in the preparation time interrogators would have to do overnight, and it makes sense that they wouldn’t dictate out their notes until the end of the week (though that is yet another reason FBI Agents should always make recordings of interrogations). Moreover, the one week delay is not so long that an agent would forget substantial parts of the interrogation. Plus, a federal defender was present and could have challenged any problems with this report.

So we should assume the report is a fair indication of the conduct of the interrogation.

I’m more interested in the timing of other events in early 2010.

Consider the public comments Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair made on February 3, at a House Intelligence hearing. Responding to a Dana Priest article from the prior week, Blair assured Congress they get specific permission before they drone kill an American citizen (there are a bunch of still unreleased memos that suggest they were actually still working on this policy).

“We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

He also said there are criteria that must be met to authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen that include “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved.”

Obliquely asked about Awlaki, Blair responded that they would only kill an American “for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it” — a standard that falls short of what OLC would eventually adopt, but one it appears they believed they had already surpassed with Awlaki.

“So there is a framework and a policy for what’s hypothetically a radical born cleric … who’s living outside of the United States, there’s a clear path as to when this person may be engaging in free speech overseas and when he may have moved into recruitment or when he may have moved into actual coordinating and carrying out or coordinating attacks against the United States?”

Mr. Blair responded that he would rather not discuss the details of this criteria in open session, but he assured: “We don’t target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it.”

That comment was made after Abdulmutallab had implicated Awlaki in giving him final orders, but before it had been dictated, much less transcribed.

Then there’s the first of two OLC memos written to authorize Awlaki’s execution. That was finalized on February 19, 2010, just two days after the first 302 implicating Awlaki in final instructions for the attack was finished.

That is, only two days elapsed from the time that the one document we know of memorializing Abdulmutallab’s confession for David Barron to authorize Awlaki’s execution.

That’s also not that surprising. After all, the government deemed (and had, before this time) Awlaki to be an urgent threat, and they shouldn’t be faulted for wanting to prepare to respond to any opportunity to neutralize it, as quickly as possible. Moreover, unlike the subsequent OLC memo, this one doesn’t appear to analyze the intelligence on Awlaki closely — it just deems him a “senior leader of Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula” and moves on to analysis about whether killing him constitutes assassination.

But the timing of all this at least suggests that there were more communications about these issues than have been identified in ACLU’s FOIAs on the subject. They at least suggest (and this would not be surprising in the least, either) that there were less formal communications about Abdulmutallab’s interrogation provided to Washington DC well before this 302 was finalized.

Again — that’s not surprising. I imagine a secure cable went out to Washington after the interrogation on the 29th — if not during Abdulmutallab’s afternoon prayer break — saying that Abdulmutallab had implicated Awlaki in providing the final instructions making sure that the US would be targeted.

But it is an interesting data point on how deliberative the process behind authorizing Awlaki’s execution was.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Trump Fulfills Another Campaign Promise: Kills 8-Year Old American Girl

Back on December 5, 2015, Donald Trump said that if he were elected President, he would take out the families of terrorists.

The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families,

He repeated the promise to kill terrorists’ families later on the campaign trail.

On Sunday, Trump made good on that campaign promise by killing Nora al-Awlaki, the 8 year old American citizen daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki in a JSOC raid. A SEAL team member, Ryan Owens, was also killed in the raid.

Obama, of course, killed Nora’s then 16-year old brother, Abdulrahman, just weeks after having killed the children’s father in a drone strike.

There are competing stories about the purpose and the outcome of the raid, as NBC lays out here. Thus far, however, there has been little acknowledgment that Donald Trump ran on doing just this, killing the 8 year old children of terrorists, which should raise real questions about how so many (possibly in the 40s?) civilians got killed in the raid. Was that the point?

 

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Maybe FBI Has Lost Track of Who the Informants Are?

Here are all the informants and undercover employees listed in the criminal complaint against Erick Hendricks, who was arrested for conspiring to materially support ISIL in relation to the Garland, TX attack:

  • CHS-1: a paid informant for the last year and a half with a criminal record of fraud and forgery who has not (yet?) received sentencing benefits for his cooperation; he met with Hendricks in Baltimore.
  • CHS2: a paid informant for the last 4 years with no known criminal history; he posed as someone wanting to join ISIL.
  • CHS-3: a paid informant for the last 4 and a half years with no known criminal history; Hendricks instructed CHS-3 to assess UCE-1 for recruitment.
  • CHS-4: a paid informant for the last 4 years with no known criminal history; Hendricks provided him with jihadist propaganda on social media. He also met with Hendricks in Baltimore, at a later date.
  • UCE-1: an undercover officer had conversations directly with Hendricks that mirrored those Hendricks had with a cooperating witness. UCE-1 also incited and then was present for the Garland attack.

Not mentioned at all in this narrative is the role played by Joshua Goldberg, a Jewish guy who adopted many avatars online to incite all kinds of violence, including, under the name of Australi Witness, Garland. In December Goldberg was deemed incompetent to stand trial, though in June it was decided with more treatment he might become competent enough to stand trial, so they’re going to check again in four months.

So, the cell that committed the Garland attack consisted of the two now-dead perpetrators, four informants, an undercover FBI officer, a mentally ill troll, and Hendricks.

Only now, Hendricks claims he was an informant too!

Hendricks claims to have been a paid informant of the FBI since 2009 who helped the agency identify potential terrorists. Code name: “Ahkie,” a variation of the Muslim term for “brother.”

He also claims to have been an outspoken and longtime opponent of radical Islam.

“I have publicly, privately and consistently denounced Al-Qaeda, ISIS and all extremist groups,” Hendricks said in a statement that Lisa Woods says her son dictated during a Wednesday phone call from the jail.

“I am baffled as to why the FBI (is) accusing me of terrorist ties.”

[snip]

In his statement, Hendricks says the FBI first made contact with him in 2009, when as Mustafa Abu Maryam, Hendricks was the youth coordinator of the Islamic Circle of North America Center in Alexandria, Va.

[snip]

In his jail statement, Hendricks says he was recruited in 2009 by an FBI agent named David to help identify potential terrorists. In 2010, after Hendricks had moved to Columbia, he says he worked with another FBI agent named Steve. Altogether, Hendricks claims to have developed “at least a half-dozen” cases against extremists.

Has the FBI simply lost track of who are real and who are the people it is paying to play a role? Or is it possible someone from another agency, claiming to be FBI, recruited Hendricks (don’t laugh! That’s one potential explanation for Anwar al-Awlaki’s curious ties to US law enforcement, a story that wends its way through a related mosque in VA)?

Sure, maybe Hendricks is making all this up (at the very least, it may necessitate the BoP to protect him in prison since he has now publicly claimed to be a narc). But FBI’s network of informants sure is getting confusing.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

DOJ Confirms One or More Agencies Acted Consistent with John Yoo’s Crummy Opinion

There’s a whiff of panic in DOJ’s response to ACLU’s latest brief in the common commercial services OLC memo, which was submitted last Thursday. They really don’t want to release this memo.

As you recall, this is a memo Ron Wyden has been hinting about forever, stating that it interprets the law other than most people understand it to be. After I wrote about it a bunch of times and pointed out it was apparently closely related to cybersecurity, ACLU finally showed some interest and FOIAed, then sued, for it. In March, DOJ made some silly (but typical) claims about it, including that ACLU had already tried but failed to get the memo as part of their suit for Stellar Wind documents (which got combined with EPIC’s suit for electronic surveillance documents). In response, Ron Wyden wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, noting a lie DOJ made in DOJ’s filings in the case, followed by an amicus brief asking the judge in the case to read the secret appendix to the letter he wrote to Lynch. In it, Wyden complained that DOJ wouldn’t let him read his secret declaration submitted in the case (making it clear they’re being kept secret for strategic reasons more than sources and methods), but asking that the court read his own appendix without saying what was in it.

Which brings us to last week’s response.

DOJ is relying on an opinion the 2nd circuit released last year in ACLU’s Awlaki drone memo case that found that if a significant delay passed between the time an opinion was issued and executive branch officials spoke publicly about it — as passed between the time someone wrote a memo for President Bush’s “close legal advisor” in 2002 about drone killings (potentially of American citizens) and the time Executive branch officials stopped hiding the fact they were planning on drone-killing an American citizen in 2010, then the government can still hide the memo.(I guess we’re not allowed to learn that Kamal Derwish was intentionally, not incidentally, drone-killed in 2002?)

This is, in my understanding, narrower protection for documents withheld under the b5 deliberative privilege exemption than exists in the DC Circuit, especially given that the 2nd circuit forced the government to turn over the Awlaki memos because they had been acknowledged.

In other words, they’re trying to use that 2nd circuit opinion to avoid releasing this memo.

To do that they’re making two key arguments that, in their effort to keep the memo secret, end up revealing a fair amount they’re trying to keep secret. First, they’re arguing (as they did earlier) that the ACLU has already had a shot at getting this memo (in an earlier lawsuit for memos relating to Stellar Wind) and lost.

There’s just one problem with that. As I noted earlier, the ACLU’s suit got joined with EPIC’s, but they asked for different things. ACLU asked for Stellar Wind documents, whereas EPIC asked more broadly for electronic surveillance ones. So when the ACLU argued for it, they were assuming it was Stellar Wind, not something that now appears to (also) relate to cybersecurity.

Indeed, the government suggests the ACLU shouldn’t assume this is a “Terrorist Surveillance Program” document.

7 Plaintiffs conclude that the OLC memorandum at issue here must relate to the Terrorist Surveillance Program and the reauthorization of that program because the attorney who authored the memorandum also authored memoranda on the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Pls.’ Opp. at 10. The fact that two OLC memoranda share an author of course establishes nothing about the documents’ contents, nature, purpose, or effect.

Suggesting (though not stating) the memo is not about TSP is not the same as saying it is not about Stellar Wind or the larger dragnets Bush had going on. But it should mean ACLU gets another shot at it, since they were looking only for SW documents the last time.

Which is interesting given the way DOJ argues, much more extensively, that this memo does not amount to working law. It starts by suggesting Wyden’s filing arguing a “key assertion” in the government’s briefs is wrong.

3 Senator Wyden asks the Court to review a classified attachment to a letter he sent Attorney General Loretta Lynch in support of his claim that a “key assertion” in the Government’s motion papers is “inaccurate.” Amicus Br. at 4. The Government will make the classified attachment available for the Court’s review ex parte and in camera. For the reasons explained in this memorandum, however, the Senator’s claim of inaccuracy is based not on any inaccurate or incomplete facts, but rather on a fundamental misunderstanding of the “working law” doctrine.

In doing so, it reveals (what we already expected but which Wyden, but apparently not DOJ, was discreet enough not to say publicly) that the government did whatever this John Yoo memo said government could do.

But, it argues (relying on both the DC and 2nd circuit opinions on this) that just because the government did the same thing a memo said would be legal (such as, say, drone-killing a US person with no due process), it doesn’t mean they relied on the memo’s advice when they took that action.

The mere fact that an agency “relies” on an OLC legal advice memorandum, by acting in a manner that is consistent with the advice, Pls.’ Opp. at 11, does not make it “working law.” OLC memoranda fundamentally lack the essential ingredient of “working law”: they do not establish agency policy. See New York Times, 806 F.3d at 687; Brennan Center, 697 F.3d at 203; EFF, 739 F.3d at 10. It is the agency, and not OLC (or any other legal adviser), that has the authority to establish agency policy. If OLC advises that a contemplated policy action is lawful, and the agency considers the opinion and elects to take the action, that does not mean that the advice becomes the policy of that agency. It remains legal advice. 5

5 Nor could the fact that any agency elects to engage in conduct consistent with what an OLC opinion has advised is lawful possibly constitute adoption of that legal advice, because taking such action does not show the requisite express adoption of both the reasoning and conclusion of OLC’s legal advice. See Brennan Center, 697 F.3d at 206; Wood, 432 F.3d at 84; La Raza, 411 F.3d at 358.

Effectively, DOJ is saying that John Yoo wrote another stupid memo just weeks before he left, the government took the action described in the stupid memo, but from that the courts should not assume that the government took Yoo’s advice, this time.

One reason they’re suggesting this isn’t TSP (which is not the same as saying it’s not Stellar Wind) is because it would mean the government did not (in 2005, when Bush admitted to a subset of things called TSP) confirm this action in the same way Obama officials danced around hailing that they had killed Anwar al-Awlaki, which led to us getting copies of the memos used to justify killing him.

In short, the government followed Yoo’s advice, just without admitting they were following his shitty logic again.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

DOJ Places David Barron’s Anwar Awlaki Memos on the “Not Selected for Publication”

Sometime between March 27 and April 15 of last year, the Office of Legal Counsel posted the two memos David Barron wrote authorizing the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki (February 19, 2010; July 16, 2010) on its list of memos “Not selected for publication” in its reading room. The website explains that these are memos that have been posted through discretionary release, but “may not reflect the Office’s current views.”

Consistent with the President’s FOIA memorandum dated January 21, 2009, and the Attorney General’s FOIA guidelines dated March 19, 2009, OLC sometimes releases requested records as a matter of discretion, even if they fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption or have not been the subject of a FOIA request.  To make such documents generally available when they are the subject of repeated requests or may be of public or historical interest, the Office may post them in this electronic reading room.  Documents posted in this electronic reading room are being disclosed through discretionary release, but they have not been selected for official publication and thus they are not included among the Office’s formal published opinions.  Although these records may be of public or historical interest, the views expressed in some of these records may not reflect the Office’s current views.

Of course, a number of the memos (most but not all of which are tied to the war on terror) weren’t released at DOJ’s discretion. Rather, some of these memos (including the two Awlaki ones) were released after DOJ tried to suppress them, only to have a Federal judge force their release.

I’ve got a call in to see if OLC has some easy explanation. But I’m wondering if it means DOJ may have thought better of now Circuit Court judge David Barron’s advice that you can kill an American citizen with no real due process.

Particularly given the timing, I’m wondering whether any change in DOJ’s views about these memos would affect American citizens overseas, such as Liban Haji Mohamed, a Somali American who was put on the Most Wanted List last year, then detained (never to publicly have shown up in an American court) on March 2, 2015. Unlike Anwar al-Awlaki, Mohamed (who is the brother of Gulet Mohamed, who has had a whole different set of problems with the government) has actually been indicted.

ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer points to a potentially more cynical (and therefore likely) explanation though. As he noted last year, at about the same time DOJ was deeming the Barron memos discretionary releases, it submitted a filing in their lawsuit against ACLU, insisting that having been ordered by a court to release the memo doesn’t count as official disclosure. In a footnote of the April 2 filing, DOJ claimed,

We further note that the Court’s release of the OLC-DOD Memorandum and its order compelling disclosure by the government of additional information would not themselves constitute an independent official disclosure or waiver by the government that would strip protection from otherwise exempt information and material.

That is, during precisely the time period when it was deeming this memo discretionary on its website, it was making that argument to the courts.

So I assume they believe they still have the right to execute American citizens at their discretion. And keep their rationale for doing so secret.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

David Cameron Proudly Announces He Drone Kills Too

After previous reporting had already claimed US credit for the kill,

A Cardiff man who is one of three from the city to have joined a jihadist group in Syria has died, BBC Wales has been told.

Reyaad Khan, 21, was killed in a US drone strike at the end of August.

And after the WaPo rolled out claims that our latest “secret” drone killing theater operates under new-and-improved rules,

The CIA and U.S. Special Operations forces have launched a secret campaign to hunt terrorism suspects in Syria as part of a targeted killing program that is run separately from the broader U.S. military offensive against the Islamic State, U.S. officials said.

[snip]

Hussain, the 21-year-old British militant killed last month, was moved toward the top of the target list after being linked to one of two gunmen killed in Garland, Tex., this year after opening fire at a cartoon contest that invited participants to draw pictures of the prophet Muhammad.

Hussain is not known to have been directly involved in the Islamic State’s gruesome beheadings of Western hostages or other violence. The decision to kill him makes clear that even militants involved only in the Islamic State’s media efforts are regarded as legitimate U.S. military targets.

In the past, the Obama administration has stressed that it was not targeting terrorism suspects involved only in propaganda. When Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric, was killed in Yemen in 2011, officials emphasized that he had become directly involved in terrorist operations.

A senior administration official said that Hussain “was more than a propagandist. He was actively involved in recruiting [Islamic State] sympathizers in the West to carry out attacks, and he was specifically focused on orchestrating operations targeting U.S. service members as well as government officials.”

Hussain was tracked in part by monitoring his online activities, according to officials who said that the British government had been consulted on the decision to make him a target.

David Cameron has now claimed credit for killing.

The UK government ordered an RAF drone strike which targeted and killed two British Islamic State fighters in Syria last month, David Cameron has said.

Cardiff-born Reyaad Khan was targeted in Raqqa on 21 August and died alongside Ruhul Amin, from Aberdeen, and another fighter, the PM told MPs.

Khan, 21, had been plotting “barbaric” attacks on British soil, he said.

The “act of self defence” was lawful, Mr Cameron said, despite MPs previously ruling out UK military action in Syria.

Khan was killed in a precision strike by a remotely piloted aircraft, “after meticulous planning”, while he was travelling in a vehicle, the prime minister said.

Another British national, Junaid Hussain, from Birmingham, was killed in a separate air strike by US forces in Raqqa on 24 August, the prime minister confirmed.

Both had been planning to attack “high-profile public commemorations” taking place in the UK this summer, he said.

Lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic are already raising questions about the legality of this strike (and given European Human Rights law, it’s at least possible Cameron will have to offer more of an explanation than Obama has offered for killing Anwar al-Awlaki). I’m also interested in what has changed from the time when the UK stripped people of their nationality so we could drone kill them (as we’ve done repeatedly in Somalia). And why a country that was so sensitive about British Telecom’s role in drone operations in Djibouti is proudly announcing this now.

Is it because this strike helps to lay the case for more war-making in Syria?

But there’s something else I’m wondering. Who is flying what over Syria? The US and UK can’t fly drones without either Bashar al-Assad’s blessing or certainty what used to be considerable air defenses have been neutralized.

Moon of Alabama has been wondering the same thing too.

[T]he most curious issue in the piece is the description of the “drone” attack that helped to fend off attacking Nusra fighters. No drone I am aware of and certainly not the “Predator” are equipped with automatic weapons like machine guns. The Drones carry fire-and-forget missiles or bombs but no drone has the necessarily heavy rotating tower and swiveling weapon holder that would allow the use of automatic weapons. “Automatic fire from the sky” as the reporter describes from the video he has seen can only have come from manned helicopters. Or is there some other explanation that I miss?

If there were helicopters who’s birds were these? U.S. or Turkish? Are there more of these flying over Syria and to what purpose? And what would be the Search & Rescue assets that could be used should such a bird come down involuntarily?

Something we are not told about is happening at the Turkish-Syrian border. Is that the reason why the Russians, despiteU.S. efforts to hinder them, prepare air fields for the delivery of new air assets to the Syrian army?

Russia is being painted as the aggressor here. But the story of trans-Atlantic drone successes, whatever the underlying truth, suggests some outside force has been successful at doing more than winning ground battles.

Update: Meant to include this, from the WaPo story, because I find it interesting a story about drones introduces ambiguity both about where the drones might have been launched, but also an acknowledgement there’s more coming out of Jordan (and presumably Turkey).

The U.S. military and European allies operate fighter jets and other aircraft from the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in Jordan, a highly secured compound that was used earlier this year by a Jordanian pilot who was captured by the Islamic State and burned alive.

The United States also flies drones from bases in Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, where the al-Udeid Air Base serves as the Middle East headquarters of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Update: In his tweet on this, Cameron said the Brits used an RAF “aircraft;” he didn’t say drone (which uses fewer characters).

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 3.03.43 PM

 

Update: Though in Cameron’s statement, he clearly says it was a remotely piloted aircraft.

Mr Speaker, in recent weeks it has been reported that 2 ISIL fighters of British nationality who had been plotting attacks against the UK and other countries have been killed in airstrikes. Both Junaid Hussain and Reyaad Khan, were British nationals based in Syria who were involved in actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers and seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West, including directing a number of planned terrorist attacks right here in Britain, such as plots to attack high profile public commemorations, including those taking place this summer.

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria.

In addition to Reyaad Khan who was the target of the strike, 2 ISIL associates were also killed, 1 of whom – Ruhul Amin, has been identified as a UK national. They were ISIL fighters and I can confirm there were no civilian casualties.

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action.

The US administration has also confirmed that Junaid Hussain was killed in an American airstrike on 24 August in Raqqah.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

OLC Lowers Its Standards for Retroactive Legal Reviews

There’s an interesting passage in the DOJ IG discussion of Jack Goldsmith’s efforts to rewrite the Stellar Wind OLC memos (PDF 456).

The first passage describes Jim Comey permitting a lower standard of review to apply for activities already in process.

In explaining the rationale for the revise opinion, Comey described to the OIG his view of two approaches or standards that could be used to undertake legal analysis of government action. If the government is contemplating taking a particular action, OLC’s legal analysis will be based on a “best view of the law” standard. However, if the government already is taking the action, the analysis should instead focus on whether reasonable legal arguments can be made to support the continuation of the conduct.137

137 Goldsmith emphasized to us that this second situation almost never presents itself, and that OLC rarely is asked to furnish legal advise on an ongoing program because the pressure “to say ‘yes’ to the President” invariably would result in applying a lower standard of review. Goldsmith stated that OLC’s involvement in Stellar Wind was “unprecedented” because OLC is always asked to review the facts and formulate its advice “up front.”

If it was unprecedented on March 1, 2004, it quickly became common.

After all, Goldsmith was asked to consider how the Geneva Convention applied to various types of detainees in Iraq, after the Administration had already been and continued to render people out of that occupied country. And he was also in the midst of a review of the torture program.

Indeed, Daniel Levin, who would go on to reconsider torture approvals until Cheney booted him out of the way to have Steven Bradbury rubberstamp things, would have been a part of those discussions.

So when, in fall 2004, he was asked to reconsider torture, that lower standard of review would have been in his mind.

You could even say that this standard of review gave CIA an incentive to start and continue torturing Janat Gul, on whom they pinned their need to resume torture, even after they accepted he was not, as a fabricator had claimed, planning election year plots in the US. So long as they tortured Gul, Levin would be permitted to apply a lower standard to that torture.

In any case, if this was unprecedented then, I suspect it’s not anymore. After all, by the time David Barron first considered the drone killing memo for Anwar al-Awlaki, the Administration had apparently already tried to kill him once. And the Libyan war had already started when OLC started reviewing it (though they made a heroic effort to rule it illegal, which is a testament to just how illegal it was).

With regards to the Stellar Wind OLC, the discussion of what Goldsmith found so problematic is mostly redacted. Which is why I’m interested in his opinion that “‘we can get there’ as to [redacted] albeit by using an aggressive legal analysis.” That says that one of the things his opinion would approve — either the content collection of one-end foreign communications or the dragnet collection of telephone metadata — involved “aggressive legal analysis” even to meet this lower standard.

It’d sure be nice to know which practice was considered so marginally legal.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

The “Sitting Next to a Baddie” American Death Authorization Has become the “Sitting in a Baddie Compound”

As Jim laid out, yesterday President Obama admitted that we killed two hostages, including American Warren Weinstein, in a drone operation in the Af-Pak border in January. In that same strike, we killed American citizen Ahmed Faruq, though he was not specifically targeted, Administration sources assure us. We also killed Adam Gadahn in an apparently unrelated strike, though we weren’t targeting him either, Administration sources assure us.

But I want to point to something rather remarkable in the language the Administration used yesterday to discuss this.

For years, the government has used the rationale that if an American is “sitting next to a baddie” then he becomes acceptable collateral damage in a drone strike.

That’s the rationale they gave when they killed Kamal Derwish in 2002: they were not targeting Derwish, they were targeting Abu Ali al-Harethi, but Derwish — far more threatening to the US at that moment because of his presumed role in recruiting Muslims in Lackawanna, NY — just was unlucky enough to be sitting next to him.

That’s the rationale they gave when they first missed Anwar al-Awlaki on December 24, 2009, a day before the government decided he had gone operational but at a time when Pete Hoekstra was making his continued existence an embarrassing issue for the Obama Administration. The Administration hadn’t been targeting Awlaki, they explained, they were instead targeting Nasir al-Wuhayshi and some other AQAP leaders, and Awlaki just happened to be present.

That’s the rationale they gave when they killed Samir Khan. He just happened to be sitting in the car when the CIA finally scorched Awlaki.

And that’s the rationale they gave when they killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki: They weren’t targeting him, they were targeting Ibrahim al-Banna, though al-Banna turned out not even to be present.

That’s the rationale they gave, years later, when they admitted to killing Jude Kenan Mohammed: he was killed in a signature strike targeting the group he was in as a whole.

Never mind that in a number of these cases — the first Awlaki strike and the one that killed his son — there’s reason to believe they were specifically targeted. Never mind that in the case of Derwish and Khan knowing insiders wink winked that the government knew full well they’d be killing these men too when they struck the other target. The excuse has been — with the exception of the pursuit of Anwar al-Awlaki — that they were targeting another person (another known person, with the exception of the Jude Mohammed strike), and the American just happened to die as collateral damage.

But yesterday, that rationale changed.

Now, the government wasn’t so much targeting a person, but a compound, something that Josh Earnest was quite insistent on in his press conference yesterday.

Q    Thanks, Josh.  Let’s start just with some of the facts of what happened, to the extent that you can discuss them.  How many other people were killed in these two strikes, either local civilians or militants?

EARNEST:  Josh, I won’t be able to provide specific numbers on this.  I can tell you that in the specific strike that resulted in the death of Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto, there was one other al Qaeda leader who was among those that was killed.  That is the — Ahmed Faruq, the American citizen al Qaeda leader.  This was a strike against an al Qaeda compound, and the result was the death of at least one al Qaeda leader.

I can tell you that the assessment that we have right now does not raise questions about additional civilian loss of life. Again, the reason for that is that the standard that was in place and, to the best of our knowledge, was closely followed by our counterterrorism professionals was to adhere to this near-certainty standard.  And that near-certainty standard applied to two things.

The first is near certainty that this was an al Qaeda compound that was used by al Qaeda leaders; that turned out to be true.  That assessment did turn out to be correct.  The other near-certainty assessment was that no civilians would be harmed if this operation were carried out.  Unfortunately, that was not correct, and the operation led to this tragic, unintended consequence.
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Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Mike Rogers Wanted to Drone Kill an American Citizen for Training with al Qaeda?

There has been some good commentary on NYT’s story on Administration debates over killing Mohanad Mahmoud al-Farekh, the American citizen who was captured and charged in federal court on April 2, after the Administration considered but then decided against drone-killing him. Both David Cole and Brett Max Kaufman ask raise some important points and questions. Of particular note, they ask what the fuck Mike Rogers was doing pushing DOD and CIA to kill a US citizen.

Yet neither of those pieces gets to something I’m puzzling over. Al-Farekh was charged in EDNY (Loretta Lynch’s district), but he was only charged with conspiracy to commit material support for terrorism, a charge that carries a 15 year maximum sentence. Basically, he is accused of conspiring with Ferid Imam who in turn trained Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators for their planned 2009 attack on the NY Subway system.

In approximately 2007, Farekh, an individual named Ferid Imam and a third co-conspirator departed Canada for Pakistan with the intention of fighting against American forces.  They did not inform their families of their plan before departing, but called a friend in Canada upon arrival to let him know that he should not expect to hear from them again because they intended to become martyrs.  According to public testimony in previous criminal trials in the Eastern District of New York, in approximately September 2008, Ferid Imam provided weapons and other military-type training at an al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan to three individuals – Najibullah Zazi, Zarein Ahmedzay and Adis Medunjanin – who intended to return to the United States to conduct a suicide attack on the New York City subway system.  Zazi and Ahmedzay pleaded guilty pursuant to cooperation agreements and have yet to be sentenced; Medunjanin was convicted after trial and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Ferid Imam has also been indicted for his role in the plot.

But the evidence laid out in the complaint is rather thin, basically amounting to the second-hand reports that al-Farekh, like Zazi and his friends, traveled to Pakistan for terrorist training.

Were we really going to kill this dude with a drone because he got terrorist training in Pakistan? That’s it?

Now, it’s quite possible the government is just charging him with the crimes the evidence for which they can introduce in a trial — though note that the government got a FISC warrant to collect on him (though it’s possible this is drone-based collection, and so sensitive enough they wouldn’t want to use it at trial).

Drones spotted him several times in the early months of 2013, and spy agencies used a warrant issued by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor his communications.

It’s equally possible that al-Farekh will be indicted on further charges, a more central role in plotting attacks out of the tribal lands of Pakistan. Similarly, it’s possible that al-Farekh’s High Value Interrogation Group interrogation — reported as well in this WaPo story — provided valuable intelligence on other militants that will have nothing to do with his own trial.

Still, both the earlier WaPo story (written in part by Adam Goldman, who wrote the book on the Zazi case) and the NYT story hint that the claims made about al-Farekh’s activities in 2013 have proven to be overblown. The WaPo doesn’t provide much detail.

Officials said there were questions about how prominent a role Farekh played in al-Qaeda.

The NYT provides more.

But the Justice Department, particularly Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., was skeptical of the intelligence dossier on Mr. Farekh, questioning whether he posed an imminent threat to the United States and whether he was as significant a player in Al Qaeda as the Pentagon and the C.I.A. described.

[snip]

Once in Pakistan, Mr. Farekh appears to have worked his way up the ranks of Al Qaeda, his ascent aided by marrying the daughter of a top Qaeda leader.

American officials said he became one of the terrorist network’s planners for operations outside Pakistan, a position that included work on the production and distribution of roadside bombs used against American troops in Afghanistan.

Some published reports have said that Mr. Farekh held the third-highest position in Al Qaeda, but Americans officials said the reports were exaggerated.

His level in the Qaeda hierarchy remains a matter of some dispute. Several American officials said that the criminal complaint against him underplayed his significance inside the terrorist group, but that the complaint — based on the testimony of several cooperating witnesses — was based only on what federal prosecutors believed they could prove during a trial.

This, then — along with the explicit connection with the Awlaki case, based as it was, at least at first, on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s interrogation and all the reasons to doubt it — seems the big takeaway. We almost killed this dude, but now all we can prove is that he trained in Pakistan.

Ironically, Philip Mudd argues for the NYT that we can’t capture these people because we’d have to rely on our intelligence partners.

But many counterterrorism specialists say capturing terrorism suspects often hinges on unreliable allies. “It’s a gamble to rely on a partner service to pick up the target,” said Philip Mudd, a former senior F.B.I. and C.I.A. official.

Of course, these are often the same people we rely on for targeting intelligence, including against both Awlaki and al-Farekh. What does it say that we’d believe targeting information from allies, but not trust them to help us arrest the guys they apparently implicate?

Whatever that says, the story thus far (it could change) is that al-Farekh was almost killed on inadequate evidence because CIA and DOD were champing at the bit. That ought to be the big takeaway.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

Government’s Assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki Used “Significantly Different” EO 12333 Analysis

Jameel Jaffer has a post on the government’s latest crazy-talk in the ongoing ACLU and NYT effort to liberate more drone memos. He describes how — in the government’s response to their appeal of the latest decisions on the Anwar al-Awlaki FOIA — the government claims the Court’s release of an OLC memo does not constitute official release of that memo. (Note, I wouldn’t be surprised if the government is making this claim in anticipation of orders to release torture pictures in ACLU’s torture FOIA suit that’s about to head to the 2nd Circuit.)

But there’s another interesting aspect of that brief. It provides heavily redacted discussion of the things Judge Colleen McMahon permitted the government to withhold. But it makes it clear that one of those things is a March 2002 OLC memo that offers different analysis about the assassination ban than the analysis used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.

The district court also upheld the withholding of a March 2002 OLC Memorandum analyzing the assassination ban in Executive Order 12,333 (the “March 2002 Memorandum”). (CA 468-70; see CA 315-29). Although the district court noted that the OLC-DOD Memorandum released by this Court contained a “brief mention” of Executive Order 12,333, the district court concluded that the analysis in the March 2002 Memorandum is significantly different from any legal analysis that this Court held has been officially disclosed and for which privilege has been waived.

The statement here is carefully worded, probably for good reason. That’s because the February 19, 2010 memo McMahon permitted the government to almost entirely redact clearly explains EO 123333 and its purported ban on assassinations in more depth than the July 16, 2010 one; the first paragraph ends,

Under the conditions and factual predicates as represented by the CIA and in the materials provided to us from the Intelligence Community, we believed that a decisionmaker, on the basis of such information, could reasonably conclude that the use of lethal force against Aulaqi would not violate the assassination ban in Executive Order 12333 or any application constitutional limitations due to Aulaqi’s United States citizenship.

I pointed out that there must be more assassination analysis here. It almost certainly resembles what Harold Koh said about a month later, for which activists at NYU are now calling into question his suitability as an international law professor.

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.”

But the government is claiming that because that didn’t get disclosed in the July 2010 memo, it doesn’t have to be disclosed in the February 2010 memo, and the earlier “significantly different” analysis from OLC doesn’t have to be disclosed either.

At a minimum, ACLU and NYT ought to be able to point to the language in the white paper that addresses assassinations that doesn’t appear in the later memo to show that the government has already disclosed it.

But I’m just as interested that OLC had to change its previous stance on assassinations to be able to kill Awlaki.

Of course, the earlier memo was written during a period when John Yoo and others were pixie dusting EO 12333, basically saying the President didn’t have to abide by EO 12333, but could instead violate it and call that modifying it. Perhaps that’s the difference — that David Barron invented a way to say that killing a high ranking leader (whether or not he’s a citizen) didn’t constitute assassination because of the weapons systems involved, as distinct from saying the President could blow off his own EOs in secret and not tell anyone.

I suggested Dick Cheney had likely pixie dusted EO 12333’s ban on assassinations back in 2009.

But there’s also the possibility the government had to reverse the earlier decision in some other fashion. After all, when Kamal Derwish was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on November 9, 2002, the government claimed Abu Ali al-Harithi was the target, a claim the government made about its December 24, 2009 attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, but one they dropped in all subsequent attempts, coincident with the February 2010 memo. That is, while I think it less likely than the alternative, it is possible that the 2010 analysis is “significantly different” because they had to interpret the assassination ban even more permissively. While I do think it less likely, it might explain why Senators Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich keep pushing for more disclosure on this issue.

One thing is clear, however. The fact that the government can conduct “significantly different” analysis of what EO 12333 means, in secret, anytime it wants to wiretap or kill a US citizen makes clear that it is not a meaningful limit on Executive power.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.