“Countering Violent Extremism”

Sorry to let the threads grow so long of late–I’ve been out weeding again, if you know what I mean.

So partly to open up another thread to discuss the many ways in which our government kills Americans and/or journalists, and partly because we’ve been talking about whether the Hutaree militia organizing 40 miles from my house to the west, or whether the Imam gunned down by the FBI 30 miles in the other direction, were terrorists, I wanted to point to a Mark Hosenball post on the jargon replacing “GWOT”:

Not long after President Obama took office, he unofficially put an end to a favorite phrase of his predecessor: the “global war on terror.” True, George W. Bush used it so much that GWOT, as it became known in Washington, had largely lost its impact. But it got the job done—and Obama had yet to find a tough, pithy replacement. Until now.

In a speech today before a conference on post-9/11 intelligence-reform efforts, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair didn’t once utter the words “global war on terror.” But at least twice he talked about the administration’s efforts at “countering violent extremism.”


CVE has been slowly catching on among the Obama crowd. Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s top counterterrorism adviser, used it in testimony he gave to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. As Benjamin explained it, “The primary goal of countering violent extremism is to stop those most at risk of radicalization from becoming terrorists. Its tools are noncoercive and include social programs, counter-ideology initiatives, and working with civil society to delegitimize the Al Qaeda narrative and, where possible, provide positive alternative narratives.” He added, “We are working hard to develop a variety of CVE programs.”

Hosenball also quotes John Brennan acknowledging that terrorism is a tactic.

It seems we’re replacing the word “terrorist,” then, with “extremist.” Preferable, in my mind, to be sure. But how will the term be used in the United States where we’ve got nutcases threatening members of Congress because they don’t like democratic votes? And will the fight against extremists merit special tactics in return, like the targeting of Americans with no due process?

Now Both JSOC AND CIA Have Green Light to Target American Citizen

Let the competition begin. The WaPo clarifies an earlier Reuters report (which was unclear that this pertained to CIA) that Anwar al-Awlaki has been added to the CIA’s kill list, after having been on JSOC’s kill list for some months.

Anwar al-Aulaqi, who resides in Yemen, was previously placed on a target list maintained by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command and has survived at least one strike carried out by Yemeni forces with U.S. assistance against a gathering of suspected al-Qaeda operatives.

Because he is a U.S. citizen, adding Aulaqi to the CIA list required special approval from the White House, officials said. The move means that Aulaqi would be considered a legitimate target not only for a military strike carried out by U.S. and Yemeni forces, but also for lethal CIA operations.

“He’s in everybody’s sights,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity.

Does it strike you as odd that we’re targeting US citizens with no judicial process? Does it strike you as odd that we’ve got two entirely separate sets of list on which Americans can be targeted to be killed? Does it strike you as odd that we’ve now got an apparent turf battle over who gets to kill al-Awlaki?

One more bit of irony. The intelligence that won al-Awlaki a place on the kill list? It almost certainly came from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is not an American citizen (though he was captured in the US and he is the son of a bigwig banker), about whom we fought for months over whether we ought to Mirandize him.

WaPo Retracts Report that Anwar al-Awlaki on CIA Kill List

As Steven Aftergood reports, the WaPo has issued a correction to Dana Priest’s article claiming that Anwar al-Awlaki was added to the CIA’s assassination list.

The article referred incorrectly to the presence of U.S. citizens on a CIA list of people the agency seeks to kill or capture. After The Post’s report was published, a source said that a statement the source made about the CIA list was misunderstood. Additional reporting produced no independent confirmation of the original report, and a CIA spokesman said that The Post’s account of the list was incorrect. The military’s Joint Special Operations Command maintains a target list that includes several Americans. In recent weeks, U.S. officials have said that the government is prepared to kill U.S. citizens who are believed to be involved in terrorist activities that threaten Americans.

Mind you, no one is disputing that al-Awlaki is on the JSOC list. Just that he’s on the CIA list.

"The president himself does not have to sign off on kill orders."

That’s the most striking line from the most recent post from Mark Hosenball, in which he tries to understand the process by which US citizens are placed on a list to be assassinated. Here’s Hosenball’s fuller explanation.

…strikes specifically targeting Americans must first be approved by a secret committee made up of senior intel officials and members of the president’s cabinet (it’s not known which ones). The president himself does not have to sign off on kill orders.

It’s handy, isn’t it, the way the President gets to retain plausible deniability for the killing of a US citizen? And the way Obama has conveniently wrapped himself in the same plausible deniability that Bush (or, more likely, Cheney) created? That way you can kill US citizens without ever worrying about the President going to jail for it. And if you’re really good at hiding the identities of those who do sign off on the killings, then no one can sue!

Also note that Hosenball seems to be looking closely at the same loophole that I have been thinking about: the ability to knowingly kill Americans so long as the purported target of that assassination is the guy sitting next to the American in the car that’s about to blow up.

The sources say that committee approval is required only if the specific target of the assassination is an American—not if an American happens to be in the vicinity of a foreign target at the time of the strike. At least once, U.S. forces have killed an American this way. In November 2002 a missile attack targeting a Yemeni terrorist also killed Kamal Derwish, an American citizen associated with an alleged terrorist cell in Lackawanna, N.Y. U.S. forces almost did it again last Christmas Eve, with an airstrike against another Yemeni terrorist; he was believed to be hiding with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric who advised both the suspected Fort Hood shooter and the alleged Christmas Day bomber. Al-Awlaki is believed to have escaped.

It would add another convenient level of plausible deniability, of course. “Oh, we weren’t actually targeting Kamal Derwish! We were targeting Harithi, even at precisely the time we targeted him, we had the guy who did what we claim he did in custody.”

I can’t wait until this gets to the courts.

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

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?

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

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.


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.