The media are suddenly abuzz with reports that the CIA has been operating a secret airbase for unmanned drones in Saudi Arabia for the past two years, from which it has launched numerous strikes on purported militants of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in neighboring Yemen—including those that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both US citizens who had never been charged with any crimes by the US government. The relevation follows the leaking to NBC this week of a confidential Justice Department memo finding that the US can order the killing of its own citizens if they are believed to be "senior operational leaders" of al-Qaeda or "an associated force"—even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the US.
The Washington Post in its coverage admitted that it had previously "refrained from disclosing the specific location" of the base "at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations…" The New York Times followed with its own story with an editorial statement admitting that it had also known of th secret base, and explaining why it felt the time to publish was now.
"A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination," the Justice Department memo reads. "In the Department's view, a lethal operation conducted against a US citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban."
Rights watchdogs interviewed by NBC's Michael Isikoff beg to differ. "This is a chilling document," said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of US citizens. "Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen… It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined…" In particular, Jaffer said, the memo "redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning."
Right. The "White Paper," as it is known, refers to a "broader concept of imminence" than that which implies actual intelligence about any extant plot for an attack. "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 US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future." Great. So now the Obama administration has turned "imminence" into a meaningless word, in exactly the same way the Bush administration did the word "torture." Another one to file under words mean whatever we say they mean.
The dumbing down of the word "imminence" also constitutes an open embrace of the Bush administration's Orwellian notion of pre-emptive self-defense. Congratulations, Obama.
Isikoff also noted that the administration's position was sharply criticized last month by US Judge Colleen McMahon in her ruling in the suit brought by the ACLU and New York Times aeeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon said she was in a "veritable Catch-22," unable to order the release of the documents given "the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret." McMahon noted that administration officials "had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens," but "in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing… any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions."
And yet she ruled for the government! So both the judiciary and the press (or, at least, McMahon, the New York Times and the Washington Post) seem to be in the paradoxical position of criticizing the administration's position, even while being entirely complicit with it.
Amnesty International in its own statement on the memo, says: "The fact that the document makes no express reference to international human rights law is unsurprising—this has become the norm for officials outlining policy and practice under the USA's notion of a global armed conflict with al-Qaeda. The silence on human rights is no less regrettable by its predictability." (Further coverage at The Guardian, The Guardian, NPR, BBC News, Feb. 6)