The secrecy surrounding such strikes is fast emerging as a central issue in this week’s hearing of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, a key architect of the drone campaign, to be CIA director. Brennan was the first administration official to publicly acknowledge drone strikes in a speech last year, calling them “consistent with the inherent right of self-defense.” In a separate talk at the Northwestern University Law School in March, Attorney General Eric Holder specifically endorsed the constitutionality of targeted killings of Americans, saying they could be justified if government officials determine the target poses “an imminent threat of violent attack.”
But the confidential Justice Department “white paper” introduces a more expansive definition of self-defense or imminent attack than described by Brennan or Holder in their public speeches. It refers, for example, to what it calls a “broader concept of imminence” than actual intelligence about any ongoing plot against the U.S. homeland.
“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.
Wow. I just finished reading the 16-page memo, which made my head hurt, but I think I understand the basics of the rationale. And that is: if you are an American citizen and the government (some “high-level official” who apparently shall remain nameless) declares you a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaeda, the government can legally blow you away via drone. Heck, you don’t even have to be planning some secret plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge or anything. The government can say you’re an “imminent threat,” even though nothing you’re currently doing is “imminent” or a “threat.” They have to make a pretense like they wanted to come grab you out of your cave (or country hostile to the US - there are a lot of those), and then boom! Also, because a public figure is ordering the assassination, it’s cool with the Congress and our laws.
Ok, so that’s incredibly simplified. But the fact that this scary set of rationalizations has seen the light of day is something. This, in case anyone is still wondering, is how the government uses the law to make the things it does that used to be illegal (murdering American citizens from the air without evidence or due process) into things that are legal. Of course, you have to read certain other legal justifications and arguments the same way the OLC did, but not know exactly how they did so because those readings are classified. Does that make sense? If you’re a cogent human being, it shouldn’t. Yet this is your government at work. I’m still in a state of shock/confusion/anger at reading all of this, so I apologize if this post isn’t the most cohesive.
On the plus side, this ought to make Brennan’s confirmation hearing this week very exciting.