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Assassination Permission Slips and Hall Passes

Yesterday, Dennis Blair gave the House Intelligence Committee an explanation of the “specially permission” that the Government grants itself before it places a US citizen on its kill list.

The U.S. intelligence community policy on killing American citizens who have joined al Qaeda requires first obtaining high-level government approval, a senior official disclosed to Congress on Wednesday.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen must get special permission.

“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.”

If you haven’t already, you should read Glenn Greenwald’s entire piece on why this stance violates US law. Here’s Glenn’s description of the legal background.

The severe dangers of vesting assassination powers in the President are so glaring that even GOP Rep. Pete Hoekstra is able to see them (at least he is now that there’s a Democratic President).  At yesterday’s hearing, Hoekstra asked Adm. Blair about the threat that the President might order Americans killed due to their Constitutionally protected political speech rather than because they were actually engaged in Terrorism.  This concern is not an abstract one.  The current controversy has been triggered by the Obama administration’s attempt to kill U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.  But al-Awlaki has not been accused (let alone convicted) of trying to attack Americans.  Instead, he’s accused of being a so-called “radical cleric” who supports Al Qaeda and now provides “encouragement” to others to engage in attacks —  a charge al-Awlaki’s family vehemently denies (al-Awlaki himself is in hiding due to fear that his own Government will assassinate him).

The question of where First Amendment-protected radical advocacy ends and criminality begins is exactly the sort of question with which courts have long grappled.  In the 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed a criminal conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who — surrounded by hooded indivduals holding weapons — gave a speech threatening “revengeance” against any government official who “continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race.”  The Court held that the First Amendment protects advocacy of violence and revolution, and that the State is barred from punishing citizens for the expression of such views.  The Brandenburg Court pointed to a long history of precedent protecting the First Amendment rights of Communists to call for revolution — even violent revolution — inside the U.S., and explained that the Government can punish someone for violent actions but not for speech that merely advocates or justifies violence (emphasis added):

As we [395 U.S. 444, 448] said in Noto v. United States, 367 U.S. 290, 297 -298 (1961), “the mere abstract teaching . . . of the moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force and violence, is not the same as preparing a group for violent action and steeling it to such action.” See also Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 259 -261 (1937); Bond v. Floyd, 385 U.S. 116, 134 (1966). A statute which fails to draw this distinction impermissibly intrudes upon the freedoms guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It sweeps within its condemnation speech which our Constitution has immunized from governmental control.

From all appearances, al-Awlaki seems to believe that violence by Muslims against the U.S. is justified in retaliation for the violence the U.S. has long brought (and continues to bring) to the Muslim world.  But as an American citizen, he has the absolute Constitutional right to express those views and not be punished for them (let alone killed) no matter where he is in the world; it’s far from clear that he has transgressed the advocacy line into violent action.

I want to go back to just one more problem with this whole state of affairs.

We have been focusing all of our powers of telecom surveillance on Anwar al-Awlaki for at least a year (and probably far longer). Our government has tracked not only what he has said on jihadist websites, but also knows precisely what he has been emailing and presumably saying on the phone.

But none of that stuff, before Christmas Day, even merited an indictment.

Read more

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

LAT: The CIA Hasn't Yet Added al-Awlaki to its Kill List

The most interesting thing about Greg Miller’s story on whether Anwar al-Awlaki has been added to the CIA’s list of assassination targets is how it differs from the two stories already written on this subject. Miller says that al-Awlaki has not yet been added to the list.

No U.S. citizen has ever been on the CIA’s target list, which mainly names Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, according to current and former U.S. officials. But that is expected to change as CIA analysts compile a case against a Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico but now resides in Yemen.

Anwar al Awlaki poses a dilemma for U.S. counter-terrorism officials. He is a U.S. citizen and until recently was mainly known as a preacher espousing radical Islamic views. But Awlaki’s ties to November’s shootings at Ft. Hood and the failed Christmas Day airline plot have helped convince CIA analysts that his role has changed.

That accords with what ABC reported on January 25.

White House lawyers are mulling the legality of proposed attempts to kill an American citizen, Anwar al Awlaki, who is believed to be part of the leadership of the al Qaeda group in Yemen behind a series of terror strikes, according to two people briefed by U.S. intelligence officials.

One of the people briefed said opportunities to “take out” Awlaki “may have been missed” because of the legal questions surrounding a lethal attack which would specifically target an American citizen.

But not with what Dana Priest wrote on January 27.

Both the CIA and the JSOC maintain lists of individuals, called “High Value Targets” and “High Value Individuals,” whom they seek to kill or capture. The JSOC list includes three Americans, including Aulaqi, whose name was added late last year. As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi’s name has now been added. [Update, February 17, 2010: WaPo has since retracted the report that CIA had US citizens on its kill list.]

I’d suggest Priest’s initial focus on JSOC (though Miller, too, confirms that al-Awlaki is on JSOC’s list) may explain this flurry of articles describing the government’s ultra-secret kill list(s). That is, Priest’s focus on JSOC may suggest the long-brewing turf war between JSOC and CIA on such issues is bubbling up to the surface. That also might explain the spin of the other two article. ABC’s article seems designed to force someone’s hand by painting the CIA as incompetent for missing al-Awlaki in the past. And it might explain CIA spokesperson Paul Gimigliano’s snippiness about the public nature of this debate.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano declined to comment, saying that it is “remarkably foolish in a war of this kind to discuss publicly procedures used to identify the enemy, an enemy who wears no uniform and relies heavily on stealth and deception.”

Now, whatever the differences in the article Miller doesn’t appear to have asked some of the obvious questions any more than Priest or ABC. If we haven’t even tried indicting al-Awlaki yet (particularly with all the increased presence we’ve got in Yemen to pick him up), then how do we have enough information to assassinate him? And why didn’t our vaunted surveillance system pick up this apparently growing threat from al-Awlaki?

As to what new information has come up to merit al-Awlaki’s placement on the kill list (whether CIA’s or JSOC’s)?

But it was his involvement in the two recent cases that triggered new alarms. U.S. officials uncovered as many as 18 e-mails between Awlaki and Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army major accused of killing 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas. Awlaki also has been tied to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of attempting to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound flight.

At least on first report, the emails were not sufficiently damning to concern the FBI. Has that changed? And the phrase “Awlaki has been tied”–you’re going to put someone on a kill list using a passive construction? Really?

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

An Interesting Few Days for Al-Awlaki

Earlier today, bmaz and I asked a series of questions about the significance of Anwar al-Awlaki’s name on the list of US citizens who can be assassinated with no due process.

bmaz: So, the US can put Awlaki on a list for death by assassination, but couldn’t, and apparently still cannot, form the basis to prosecute him criminally??

ew: And cannot prosecute him having had a tap on his phones going back–at the very least–at least a year?

ew: I wonder if [the targeting of Awlaki] is what happened to the William Webster inquiry into Awlaki’s communications with Nidal Hasan?

Today, Declassifed blog’s Mark Coatney asked a related question that I had earlier raised: Why was the Administration, immediately, so chatty about the Underwear Bomber, even while it remains very close-lipped about Nidal Hasan? (The Administration–though not, apparently, Webster–was supposed to brief the Intelligence Committees on the Hasan investigation today, which I guess makes it safe to assume Dana Priest’s article came up in the briefing, if Congress didn’t already know about the assassinations of American citizens.)

Capitol Hill officials say that the Obama White House and relevant government agencies have been very cooperative in supplying congressional oversight committees with a torrent of information—both raw intelligence and law-enforcement material and results of internal administration inquiries—about alleged would-be Christmas Day underpants airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. President Obama and other senior administration officials have said that in the months before Abdulmutallab boarded his flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, U.S. agencies had collected various “bits and pieces” of intelligence, which, had they been properly knitted together, might well have enabled U.S. authorities to foil Abdulmutallab’s attempted airplane bombing before he boarded his flight.

By contrast, the same officials allege that the administration has been relatively tightfisted with information, both from raw intelligence and law-enforcement files and from postmassacre investigations, on the background of the accused Fort Hood shooter. Congressional officials say they don’t know why the administration has been more reticent about Fort Hood than about the failed underpants attack, but that the contrast between how the cases have been treated up until now has been striking.

I’m glad I wasn’t the only one noticing the disparity in treatment of the two extremists.

More interesting than the confirmation that I’m not crazy in seeing the disparity, though, is the timeline revealed in several recent details on Al-Awlaki.

December 17, 2008: Nidal Hasan sends first email to al-Awlaki “asking for an edict regarding the [possibility] of a Muslim soldier killing his colleagues who serve with him in the American army”

November 5, 2009: Hasan killings in Ft. Hood

November 8, 2009: Al-Awlaki blesses Hasan’s killings

November 19, 2009: Underwear Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father alerts US embassy of his concerns about his son

December 4, 2009:  Abdulmutallab leaves Yemen, having met with al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula members, possibly including al-Awlaki

December 22, 2009: FBI Deputy Director John Pistole provides classified briefing to Senate Homeland Security Committee on Fort Hood

December 23 (?), 2009: Al-Awlaki does interview with al-Jazeera that is subsequently posted to many jihadi forums

December 24, 2009: Strike in Yemen mistakenly thought to have hit al-Awlaki

December 25, 2009: Abdulmutallab attempts to blow up plane outside of Detroit

December 26, 2009: Crazy Pete Hoekstra says there may have been ties between al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab

After December 24 but before end of 2009: Al-Awlaki added to JSOC list of those to be killed or captured

December 29: Moonie Times reports that al-Awlaki blessed Abdulmutallab’s plot beforehand (based on intelligence source)

If you match this timeline with the assertion that Awlaki had some tie with Abdulmutallab and that he was placed on the assassination list(s) just after Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack, then it seems clear that, after al-Awlaki’s ties to Hasan became clear, and after the attempted attack in Detroit, the Obama Administration almost immediately placed him on the list. Read more

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Peace on Earth Air Strike in Yemen

What Siun dubbed our Fourth War continues to heat up, this time with air strikes that reportedly kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the cleric who communicated with Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan via email in the months leading up to the Fort Hood killings.

Backed by U.S. intelligence, Yemeni forces struck a series of suspected al-Qaida hideouts Thursday, killing more than 30 militants in its stepped-up campaign against the terror network, the government said. A radical Muslim preacher linked by U.S. intelligence to a gunman who killed 13 people at a U.S. Army base is believed to have been killed in the airstrike, a security official said on Thursday.

“Anwar al Awlaki is suspected to be dead (in the air raid),” said the Yemeni official, who asked not to be identified.

[snip]

Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee said airstrikes in the eastern Shabwa province targeted an al-Qaida leadership meeting that was organizing attacks. It said top al-Qaida officials were at the meeting, though it was unclear whether they were harmed.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect there are far more dangerous members of al Qaeda in Yemen right now than in Afghanistan. If so, we’re at least targeting the guys we’re supposedly at war with.

Still, the convenience of killing al-Awlaki now, at  a time when we’re investigating his communication with Hasan, after we’ve been tracking him closely for seven years, along with the way this strike fits into the “30 casualties” formula, makes me a wee bit suspicious.

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.