Is the Government Worried about Revealing Broader Targeted Killing Authority in the Drone FOIAs?

In addition to yesterday’s letter’s explanation that the government needed an extension in ACLU and NYT’s Anwar al-Awlaki drone FOIA because Obama and/or his closest aides–the highest level of the Executive Branch–were getting involved, there was one other interesting phrase I wanted to note: the way in which it portrays the FOIA.

We write respectfully on behalf of the Department of Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency (collectively, the “Government”) to seek a further extension until May 21, 2012, of the Government’s deadline to file its consolidated motion for summary judgment in these related Freedom of Information Act cases seeking records pertaining to alleged targeted lethal operations directed at U.S. citizens and others affiliated with al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. [my emphasis]

That description doesn’t precisely match the request in any of the three FOIAs, which ask for:

ACLU: the legal authority and factual basis of the targeted killing of [Anwar] al-Awlaki, Abdulrahman [al-Awlaki], and [Samir] Khan.

NYT Savage: all Office of Legal Counsel memorandums analyzing the circumstances under which it would be lawful for United States armed forces or intelligence community assets to target for killing a United States citizen who is deemed to be a terrorist.

NYT Shane: all Office of Legal Counsel opinions or memoranda since 2001 that address the legal status of targeted killings, assassination, or killing people suspected of ties to Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups by employees or contractors of the United States government.

The government seems squeamish, first of all, about repeating the language used in all three of these requests–targeted killing–opting instead for the phrase “targeted lethal operations.” Note, significantly, that these requests, and especially Shane’s, would not be limited to drone strikes, but also would include hit squads.

The government understandably opts not to use the names specified by ACLU, opting instead to use the generic “US citizen” used by Savage.

Equally understandably, it uses Shane’s language to describe the target: “Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.” But I find the adoption of Shane’s formulation significant, because it is much broader than the language from the AUMF:

those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons

And somewhat broader than the language from the NDAA:

person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners

Now, it’s not just Shane’s language that broadens the scope here. None of the three requests mention AQAP, which would at least give the government the ability to focus on questions about how it decided that Awlaki was a legitimate target under the AUMF (on that topic, note this exchange between Robert Chesney and Bruce Ackerman). Both NYT requests ask for information about targeting terrorists generally. Which might get into some interesting targeting decisions both specific to Pakistan (for example, the original decision to target Beitullah Mehsud–and therefore the Pakistani Taliban–was based on a potentially erroneous information about a dirty bomb) and more generally in places like Gaza or Iran or Latin America.

In other words, if the government maintains it has the authority to assassinate terrorists, generally, perhaps tied to the Iraq AUMF or perhaps tied to the Gloves Come Off MON, then this language might make it hard for the government to provide a tidy response to this FOIA.

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