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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Man, I must have written about this letter Ron Wyden sent to John Brennan during his confirmation process 15 times (of which just a few are linked below). Which is why I’m so fascinated by the back and forth between Wyden’s office (the staffer’s name is redacted) and ODNI, largely Bob Litt, both before and after Wyden sent the letter on January 14, 2013. (Many many kudos to Zack Sampson who FOIAed it through MuckRock.)
Wyden’s office submitted the letter for a declassification review on January 11, 2013. Wyden’s office did not get an answer before he sent it. And on January 15, Bob Litt complained,
I have a concern that there are several references in this letter that are not only classified but compartmented.
So the staffer writes back letting Litt know that he or she had unclassified comments by Executive Branch officials for all the references, and he or she will happily share it. To which Litt responded (on January 17),
Although I am dubious, since there are statements in there that assume as fact things that we have recently succeeded in convincing a judge remain classified, I’ll take a look.
It went on for a while (the email thread is from page 21 to 24), with Litt complaining some more, promising Brennan wouldn’t answer questions about it, and the staffer ultimately pointing out that the reason they keep asking publicly is because ODNI won’t provide answers even in classified form (this exchange precedes Clapper’s lies about the dragnet — about which most of the other documents released under this FOIA pertain — by two months).
What Litt was talking about, clearly, was the Administration’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the memos authorizing which Judge Colleen McMahon, citing Alice in Wonderland for the bizarreness of it all, had just ruled remained exempt from FOIA on January 2, 2013.
In other words, Litt was suggesting that Wyden should not have said the following — which cites McMahon!! — because McMahon had ruled that the government did not have to give the OLC memos authorizing the Awlaki killing to ACLU and NYT, which is rather different from ruling they didn’t have to share such information with the Intelligence Committee or claiming that Wyden could not refer to official comments in a letter to someone who made those comments because citing back those comments made them classified.
I have asked repeatedly over the past two years to see the secret legal opinions that contain the executive branch’s understanding of the President’s authority to kill American citizens in the course of counterterrorism operations. Senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have the authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, and have indicated that there are secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that explain the basis for this authority. I have asked repeatedly to see these opinions and I have been provided with some relevant information on the topic, but I have yet to see the opinions themselves.
Both you and the Attorney General gave public speeches on this topic early last year, and these speeches were a welcome step in the direction of more transparency and openness, but as I noted at the time, these speeches left a large number of important questions unanswered. A federal judge recently noted in a Freedom of Information Act case that “no lawyer worth his salt would equate Mr. Holder’s statements with the sort of robust analysis that one finds in a properly constructed legal opinion,” and I assume that Attorney General Holder would agree that this was not his intent.
As Wyden noted, both Brennan and Holder had given big dog-and-pony shows that were clearly about killing Awlaki, and yet Bob Litt wanted to prevent Wyden from pressuring Brennan to turn over the actual legal authorizations to the Intelligence Community’s oversight committee? Really?
Ah well, it all worked out for the forces of good, as when the Committee threatened to hold up Brennan’s confirmation, someone leaked the White Paper to Mike Isikoff that therefore had to be shared with Jason Leopold that ultimately led McMahon to liberate the opinions themselves.
Which is probably precisely what Bob Litt was worried about.
“Hey, William Shirer? It’s J. Edgar here. I think you’re disgusting for reporting from Nazi Germany.”
Actually, I have no idea what J. Edgar Hoover thought of William Shirer’s reporting from Nazi Germany. I don’t even know whether Hoover ever spoke to Shirer. But I’m trying to imagine what it would feel like for the FBI Director to publicly call out one of the most invaluable journalists — and after that, historians — during World War II and tell him his work was disgusting.
It’s an image conjured up by this Jack Goldsmith response to my earlier post on Jim Comey’s suggestion that the NYT was “disgusting” for giving an AQAP member anonymity to clarify which Parisian terrorists they have ties with and with they do not.
Marcy Wheeler implies that Comey here “bullies” the NYT. No, he criticized it and “urge[d]” it to “reconsider.” He made no threat whatsoever, and he had no basis to make one. That is not bullying. Wheeler is on stronger ground in pointing out that the USG speaks to the press through anonymous sources all the time, including in its claims about civilian casualties in drone strikes. I don’t like press reliance on anonymous sources. But I also don’t think that the U.S. government and its enemy in war, AQAP, are on the same footing, or should be treated the same way in NYT news coverage. (Imagine if the NYT said: “A source in the child exploitation ring told the New York Times on condition of anonymity that his group was responsible for three of the child kidnappings but had nothing to with the fourth.”) The NYT appears to think they are on the same footing and should be treated the same when it comes to anonymous sources. Comey disagrees, and there is nothing wrong with him saying so publicly. The press is immune from many things, but not from criticism, including by the government.
For what it’s worth, I actually can imagine it might be incredibly important for a newspaper to give criminals anonymity to say something like this, particularly if the newspaper could vet it. It might well save lives by alerting cops they were looking for two child exploitation rings, not one. As with the NYT quote, which alerts authorities that the threat is a lot more nebulous than declaring it AQAP might make it seem.
Yet Goldsmith is involved in a category error by comparing AQAP to a gang. Sure, they are thuggish and gang-like (albeit less powerful than some Mexican cartels).
But the US does not consider them a gang. It considers them, legally, an adversary in war (just ask Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed based on such an assertion). And there is a very long and noble history of journalists reporting from both sides in time of war, through whatever means (though as with Shirer, the journalists ultimately need to judge whether they’re still able to do independent reporting). Indeed, having journalists who could make some claim to neutrality has been fundamentally important to get closer to real understanding. More recently, Peter Bergen’s reporting — including his secure meeting with Osama bin Laden — was crucially important to US understanding after 9/11, when few knew anything about bin Laden.
And the logic behind giving an AQAP source anonymity — and secure communications — is particularly powerful given that the US shows no respect for journalists’ (or human rights workers’ or lawyers’) communications in its spying. Nor does it consider anyone “in” a terrorist group, whether they be propagandists, cooks, or drivers, illegitimate for targeting purposes. Thus, any non-secure communication can easily lead immediately to drone killing. But killing this one guy talking to NYT, however much that might make Jim Comey feel good, is not going to solve the problem of Muslims in the west choosing to declare allegiance to one or another Islamic extremist group before they go on a killing spree. Hell, if some of the claims floating around are correct, killing Awlaki hasn’t even diminished his ability to inspire murder.
In the case of Yemen (or Pakistan, or Somalia, or Syria) in particular, just speaking to a journalist can put someone in grave danger. For example, I’ve long wondered whether problematizing the US government claims about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Jeremy Scahill’s book made Mullah Zabara, who at least accepted AQAP’s role in his province, a target for assassination. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to him (and Scahill) for revealing Abdulmutallab was staying at Fahd al-Quso’s farm, which presented a critical counter detail to some of the government’s claims accepted credulously in the press.
The US government and the US public is far, far too ignorant about the people we’re fighting. A little better insight into their views would help us all. If journalists have to use secure communications and extend anonymity to get that — and ethically, there may be little else they can do — then they should do that.
We are not winning this conflict, and we won’t win it, so long as we try to criminalize the adversary’s propaganda rather than offer a more compelling ideology than they are to those they’re successfully recruiting. And this urge for someone as powerful as Jim Comey to get snitty when the NYT reports not ideology, but information, from AQAP reveals nothing more than an impotence to wage that ideological battle.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero has what I’m sure he believes to be an out of the box op-ed in the NYT. In it, he calls on President Obama to issue pardons for all those who masterminded the torture program.
But with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.
But let’s face it: Mr. Obama is not inclined to pursue prosecutions — no matter how great the outrage, at home or abroad, over the disclosures — because of the political fallout. He should therefore take ownership of this decision. He should acknowledge that the country’s most senior officials authorized conduct that violated fundamental laws, and compromised our standing in the world as well as our security. If the choice is between a tacit pardon and a formal one, a formal one is better. An explicit pardon would lay down a marker, signaling to those considering torture in the future that they could be prosecuted.
Mr. Obama could pardon George J. Tenet for authorizing torture at the C.I.A.’s black sites overseas, Donald H. Rumsfeld for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, David S. Addington, John C. Yoo andJay S. Bybee for crafting the legal cover for torture, and George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all.
There are many many problems with this proposal, some of which Kevin Jon Heller hits in a piece that notes this would not be pardon, but blanket amnesty.
But Romero’s proposal (if it is intended as anything beyond a modest proposal meant to call Obama’s bluff) fundamentally misunderstands the situation — a situation the ACLU has been at the forefront in exposing.
Obama would not — categorically cannot — admit that what Tenet and Bush and Cheney did on torture is illegal. That’s because he has authorized war crimes using the very same Presidential Finding as the Bush Administration used to authorized torture.
As I have laid out at length, the torture program started as a covert op authorized by the September 17, 2001 Gloves Come Off Memorandum of Notification. And along with torture, that Finding also authorized drone strikes. The drone strikes that Obama escalated.
Just 3 days after he assumed the Presidency, a drone strike Obama authorized killed as many as 11 civilians, including one child, and gravely injured a 14 year old boy, Farim Qureshi. And several years into his Administration, Obama ordered the CIA to kill American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki with no due process. As far as we know, both of those things were done using that very same Finding, the Finding that Romero would like Obama to declare authorized war crimes.
When the 2nd Circuit ruled the President — President Obama, not President Bush — could keep a short phrase hidden making it clear torture had been authorized by that Finding in ACLU’s very own torture FOIA, it did so because the Finding still authorized intelligence activities. The Finding authorizing torture was still active — President Obama was still relying on it — at least as recently as 2012.
For Obama to pardon Bush, Cheney, and Tenet, he would have to admit that the same Finding that he used to authorize drone strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians authorized war crimes. There is absolutely zero chance Obama is going to do that.
November 2, 2014 was the first annual International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.
To mark the date, the President just issued this statement.
History shows that a free press remains a critical foundation for prosperous, open, and secure societies, allowing citizens to access information and hold their governments accountable. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reiterates the fundamental principle that every person has the right “to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Each and every day, brave journalists make extraordinary risks to bring us stories we otherwise would not hear – exposing corruption, asking tough questions, or bearing witness to the dignity of innocent men, women and children suffering the horrors of war. In this service to humanity, hundreds of journalists have been killed in the past decade alone, while countless more have been harassed, threatened, imprisoned, and tortured. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the perpetrators of these crimes against journalists go unpunished.
All governments must protect the ability of journalists to write and speak freely. On this first-ever International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the United States commends the priceless contributions by journalists to the freedom and security of us all, shining light into the darkness and giving voice to the voiceless. We honor the sacrifices so many journalists have made in their quest for the truth, and demand accountability for those who have committed crimes against journalists.
It’s a wonderful sentiment, but I wonder if President Obama has thought this through.
After all, as Jeremy Scahill reported several years ago, President Obama personally intervened to ensure that Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye would remain in prison after having been tortured and subjected to a trumped up trial.
On February 2, 2011, President Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The two discussed counterterrorism cooperation and the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the call, according to a White House read-out, Obama “expressed concern” over the release of a man named Abdulelah Haider Shaye, whom Obama said “had been sentenced to five years in prison for his association with AQAP.” It turned out that Shaye had not yet been released at the time of the call, but Saleh did have a pardon for him prepared and was ready to sign it. It would not have been unusual for the White House to express concern about Yemen’s allowing AQAP suspects to go free. Suspicious prison breaks of Islamist militants in Yemen had been a regular occurrence over the past decade, and Saleh has been known to exploit the threat of terrorism to leverage counterterrorism dollars from the United States. But this case was different. Abdulelah Haider Shaye is not an Islamist militant or an Al Qaeda operative. He is a journalist.
In addition to interviewing Anwar al-Awlaki just as the US started targeting the radical cleric, Shaye also provided important coverage exposing the US role in an attack on the village of al Majala that massacred women and children.
On December 17, the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed.
Shaye was kept in prison for an additional two and a half years after Obama’s intervention.
There are a number of other examples of US crimes against journalists that have been treated with impunity. In particular, the detention of Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj at Gitmo for over six years, reportedly in an effort to recruit him to inform on his employer, comes to mind.
But with Shaye, President Obama personally intervened to ensure a journalist would remain imprisoned in a brutal prison system.
Does President Obama decry the impunity he has enjoyed for imprisoning Shaye for his journalism?
Cross-posted from ExposeFacts.