President Obama took office promising to abandon many of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. Three years later, the Obama White House is claiming the right to do something even the Bush White House never proposed: kill American citizens overseas who are suspected of links to al-Qaida and other terror groups.
The administration has signed off on operations that led to the deaths of at least three U.S. citizens, but key aspects of its thinking about the legal justification for such strikes have long been clouded in the same secrecy that surrounds the broader CIA-led effort to hunt down terrorist leaders across the globe.
In a high-profile speech on Monday in Chicago, Attorney General Eric Holder offered the administration’s most expansive explanation to date of the reasons it believes Americans like Anwar al-Awlaki can be marked for death. Holder also offered a forceful defense of such killings, arguing that citizenship doesn’t protect Americans actively involved in planning or carrying out attacks against their own country.
“Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen -- even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaida in a foreign land -- is among the gravest that government leaders can face,” Holder said in his speech at Northwestern University’s law school. “The American people can be -- and deserve to be -- assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws.”
The speech raised as many questions as it answered. Holder didn’t offer any detail about the other Americans it was pursuing, explain who in the administration needs to sign off on the killings of U.S. citizens affiliated with terror groups, or precisely define the legal terms under which Americans could be targeted. He didn’t address the operational aspects of such strikes, including whether they are carried out by the CIA or by the military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command.
The remarks instead seemed designed to carry out a pair of related missions: reassure outside critics that lethal force would only be used against a small number of Americans -- and only under a set of three specific conditions -- and combat the growing perception that Obama’s counterterror policies have become more extreme than those of the Bush administration.
It’s far from clear that Holder’s speech will pull that off. Morris Davis is a retired Air Force colonel who served as the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay before resigning and becoming a harsh critic of the detention camp and the military commission process itself. In an interview, he called the new policy deeply worrisome.
“There are those signs with Bush’s picture saying, 'Do you miss me yet?’” he said. “I’m almost going to the point that I do. Even Bush didn’t say he had the unilateral right to kill.”
The White House has already retained -- and expanded -- a host of controversial Bush-era counterterrorism programs. Obama has signed off on four times as many lethal drone strikes inside Pakistan as Bush had. The president has expanded the nation’s drone war to new battlefields in Yemen and Somalia. Guantanamo Bay remains open, and the military commissions which Obama criticized so harshly during his 2008 presidential campaign resumed last year. With the recent killings of three U.S. citizens, the Obama administration has added a new tactic that goes beyond anything put in place by the Bush White House.
Holder offered a multi-part defense for the administration’s approval of strikes like the drone attack in Yemen last year which killed Awlaki and a second American citizen, al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan. Awlaki’s American-born son, Abdulrahman, 16, was killed in another U.S. air strike in Yemen just weeks later.
The attorney general said such strikes would only be carried out if three conditions were met. First, Holder said that the executive branch has to have determined that the U.S. citizen “poses an imminent threat of violent attack” against the U.S. Second, it has to involve a situation where it’s not “feasible” to capture the militant alive. Finally, the strike has to cause only minimal collateral damage and “use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.”
“The unfortunate reality is that our nation will likely continue to face terrorist threats that, at times, originate with our own citizens,” Holder said. “When such individuals take up arms against this country and join al-Qaida in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans, there may be only one realistic and appropriate response.”