Obama's Criteria for Killing People Are Optional

On Monday I noted several alarming aspects of the process by which President Obama marks people for death, as outlined in a Justice Department white paper leaked this week. All of them boil down to this: To be comfortable with the Obama administration's program of "targeted killings," you have to be confident that the president and his underlings, without the benefit of judicial review, are conscientiously and inerrantly identifying people who deserve to die and who pose truly imminent terrorist threats that can only be addressed by dropping bombs on them. This morning Jesse Walker noted an additional problem: Even if the targets are appropriate, they are not the only ones killed by American missiles. In addition to the Yemeni cleric he mentions, who had taken a brave stance against Al Qaeda, the same New York Times story cites a 2009 attack in which "American cruise missiles carrying cluster munitions killed dozens of civilians, including many women and children." Counts by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University in London indicate that drone strikes in Pakistan had killed somewhere between 474 and 881 civilians, including 176 children, as of last September.

The New York Times story also belies the impression that drones are targeting only "senior, operational leader[s] of al-Qa'ida or an associated force" who pose "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" and that they are used only when capture is "infeasible":

Several former top military and intelligence officials—including Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired general who led the Joint Special Operations Command, which has responsibility for the military’s drone strikes, and Michael V. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director—have raised concerns that the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly targeting low-level militants who do not pose a direct threat to the United States....

In some cases, drones have killed members of Al Qaeda when it seemed that they might easily have been arrested or captured, according to a number of Yemeni officials and tribal figures. One figure in particular has stood out: Adnan al Qadhi, who was killed, apparently in a drone strike, in early November in a town near the capital.

Mr. Qadhi was an avowed supporter of Al Qaeda, but he also had recently served as a mediator for the Yemeni government with other jihadists, and was drawing a government salary at the time of his death. He was not in hiding, and his house is within sight of large houses owned by a former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and other leading figures.

A 2012 study by researchers at the Stanford and NYU law schools estimated that 2 percent of targets killed by drones in Pakistan could be described as "high-level." To be fair, the DOJ white paper makes it clear that the conditions it discusses—the target is 1) a senior, operational leader who 2) poses an imminent threat (which in practice is the same as the first condition) and 3) cannot be captured—are sufficient to justify the summary execution of an American citizen, which does not mean they are necessary, especially when it comes to foreign nationals. Attorney General Eric Holder likewise kept the president's options open in a March 2012 speech (emphasis added):

Let me be clear: An operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.

I am happy to let Holder be clear, but he seems intent on obfuscating a crucial point: While the president claims the authority to order someone's death when these conditions are met, he also claims that authority when these conditions are not met. The white paper itself broadens the meaning of "imminent threat" so that it is not really a distinct criterion, dropping even the requirement (which was never really a requirement) that a target be "actively engaged in planning to kill Americans." Both that document and a close reading of Holder's speech make it clear that the president's license to kill is broader than all the talk of careful review and qualifying criteria might lead one to believe.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Killazontherun||

    A threat matrix is a modern, scientific concept created by an enlightened ruler selected through egalitarian principles. The idea of due process, on the other hand, was created by uneducated, feudal barbarians living under a monarchy.

  • Loki||

    Worse than that: by a bunch of dead slave owning white dudes who lived, like, over a hundred years ago or something. None of their ideas have any relevance to the modern world, I mean, everyone knows that.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    Doesn't the left understand that these powers will be used by future presidents, some of whom will be Republicans?

  • rts||

    Hey man, you're harshing their war boners with that kind of talk.

    Besides, that's the game isn't it? When the other side starts doing what you've been doing and then some, you get to hit them over the head about "and then some", win re-election, then claim the "and then some" as your own: rinse, lather, repeat.

  • ||

    OR

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

    /pedant

  • IamNotEvil||

    This fits better:

    Lather, Rinse and Obey!
    It's time to wash your hair today!
    You may think I'm a villain,
    but I'm just chillin'.
    Come on, lemme hear you say...

    Lather, Rinse and Obey!
    I'm a player just playin' his play.
    My product's in a rap song,
    time to get your wash on,
    with Dr. D's Brain Washing Shampoo
    And Cranium Rinse....

  • WTF||

    No, they don't.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    No, because they think the media will step in at that point and bring the heat, gaining them political points. And they are right.

  • Bobarian||

    The Left hopes that everyone will come to their senses in the next couple of years and declare the One to be 'God-Emperor of Worm Town; Supreme Generalissimo for Life'

  • T o n y||

    I can name some notable members of "the left" who support this policy. Can you?

  • wareagle||

    these powers are only good when used by a Dem. In Repub hands, they are evil.

  • Loki||

    I think they honestly believe they'll be in power forever, so no.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Remember when the only people being held at Guantanamo were the WORST OF THE WORST?

    Good times, baby.

  • sarcasmic||

    Yeah. Bushitler was the worstest president ever because he jailed people without trial.

    Now Obamajesus kills people without a trial and he's the bestest president ever!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    They were talking about dronefare on Morning Joke; even Ms Fluffzinski was squirming uncomfortably, but that did not prevent her from blaming BOOOOSH for establishing the precedent and FORCING her poor little Dreamboat-in-Chief to do these unpleasant, but totally legitimate and completely necessary things.

  • Pro Libertate||

    If nothing else, there shouldn't be any totally unchecked power. While our system does recognize some inherent powers in each branch, I don't think this quite falls under that.

    Of course, if Congress had any balls, it would just cut funding until the administration played ball. That's the kind of thing it's supposed to do.

  • sarcasmic||

    All together now ... Fuck you! That's why!

  • Pro Libertate||

    Odd, that's not in my copy of the Constitution. Could it be on the back?

  • BakedPenguin||

    Franklin wrote it in invisible ink, during the after convention party. Madison was pretty wasted at that point, so he didn't care.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Oh, that. That was just in response to a question during the convention about why Franklin was banging Madison's sister and her two best friends.

  • sarcasmic||

    Let's see. Let me dig out the Cliff Notes version of the Constitution.

    "The federal government can do anything necessary and proper to promote the general welfare and regulate commerce."

    That's it. The whole thing. No enumerated powers. No restrictions.

  • Pro Libertate||

    We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    Crap, it's all right there. Why do we need the rest?

  • Tonio||

    Some of the leftists I know are upset about this, and not blaming Bush. So we may get proper congressional hearings and legislation about this.

  • wareagle||

    but will they be upset out loud? And will they do anything about it, say something like not voting straight Dem?

  • Loki||

    I think we all know that answers to those questions. It's TEAM-TARDS all the way down.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Mr. Qadhi was an avowed supporter of Al Qaeda,

    He's Al-Qaeda's number 2...wait, no, he's not...he's a senior-level...no, dammit, that's not right either...he's an Al-Qaeda affiliate! That's the ticket! Drone his ass!

  • ||

    Look at his name, it's even spelled kind of like "Qaeda". That's a paddlin'

  • wef||

    Has anyone else noted that he is wearing his watch on his left hand?

    Not unheard of, but an obvious and curious display.

  • Adam.||

    These drones must be pretty damn stealth; with them flying around everywhere dropping bombs and surveiling i'd think more would have been capture (like in iran) or destroyed.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement