The White House’s rush to formalize its extrajudicial killing program

President Obama insists that his right to kill anyone anywhere is based on law, but if the legal basis for his assassination program is so strong, why would there be any need to write a “rules” on how it gets carried out? The crafting of rules after 2,500 people have already been killed suggests two things:

1. That the process through which Obama’s kill list has been developed and applied, has to some degree been ad hoc in its nature, and

2. that the legality of this program is highly contestable — in other words, that the White House’s partially drafted rule book is nothing more than a legal fig leaf.

The New York Times reports:

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. But with more than 300 drone strikes and some 2,500 people killed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the military since Mr. Obama first took office, the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.

Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.

More broadly, the administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian adds: Human-rights groups and peace groups opposed to the CIA-operated targeted-killing programme, which remains officially classified, said the administration had already rejected international law in pursuing its drone operations.

“To say they are rewriting the rulebook implies that there isn’t already a rulebook” said Jameel Jaffer, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy. “But what they are already doing is rejecting a rulebook – of international law – that has been in place since [the second world war].”

He said the news was “frustrating”, because it relied on “self-serving sources”. The New York Times piece was written by one of the journalists who first exposed the existence of a White House “kill list”, in May.

The ACLU is currently involved in a legal battle with the US government over the legal memo underlying the controversial targeted killing programme, the basis for drone strikes that have killed American citizens and the process by which individuals are placed on the kill list.

Jaffer said it was impossible to make a judgement about whether the “rulebook” being discussed, according to the Times, was legal or illegal.

“It is frustrating how we are reliant on self-serving leaks” said Jaffer. “We are left with interpreting shadows cast on the wall. The terms that are being used by these officials are undefined, malleable and without definition. It is impossible to know whether they are talking about something lawful or unlawful.

“We are litigating for the release of legal memos. We don’t think the public should have to reply on self-serving leaking by unnamed administrative officials.”

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2 thoughts on “The White House’s rush to formalize its extrajudicial killing program

  1. Norman

    Giving an O.K. to assassination, regardless of who does it. Just another step down that slippery slope that this country is headed. At some point in time, all these so called great leaders will either be shot or standing in the bar at the Hague for war crimes.

  2. pabelmont

    When you consider the very tenuous “evidence-based “proofs” (suggestions, suspicions) that someone is a “terrorist” — maybe based on the “evidence” of anonymous testimony (I owe him money so I’ll label him a terrorist), or testimony acquired by torture )which is notoriously unreliable) — you can see how low a reliability can and should be placed on evidence-based identifications of terrorists.

    On the other hand, when you consider how “pattern-recognition based on someone’s idea of what “looks” like a meeting of terrorists can end up targeting a wedding party (casting not a little doubt on the “pattern-recognizing” system, you cannot have too much trust in that, either.

    What President Obama has is the advice of a very unreliable (see above) (but very enthusiastic — and perhaps human-rights-blind and islamophobic) groups of actual CIA folks together (I suspect) with corporate body-shop CIA-adjuncts (selected I cannot imagine how) attuned to the MIC’s taste for spending big-$$$ to explode drone bombs on any target “colorable” (as lawyers say) as “terrorists”.

    President Obama should stop it now. Just stop it. And call it illegal. (No future president will prosecute him any more than he prosecuted Bush-II.)

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