Obama continues to cloak his killing program in secrecy

The New York Times reports: Early in his first term, President Obama rejected the vehement protests of the Central Intelligence Agency and ordered the public disclosure of secret Justice Department legal opinions on interrogation and torture that had been written in the administration of George W. Bush.

In the case of his own Justice Department’s legal opinions on assassination and the “targeted killing” of terrorism suspects, however, Mr. Obama has taken a different approach. Though he entered office promising the most transparent administration in history, he has adamantly refused to make those opinions public — notably one that justified the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed an American, Anwar al-Awlaki. His administration has withheld them even from the Senate and House intelligence committees and has fought in court to keep them secret, making any public debate on the issue difficult.

But with the disclosure on Monday of a Justice Department document offering a detailed legal analysis of the targeted killing of Americans, the barricades of secrecy have been breached. Just as leaks of interrogation memos in 2004 under President Bush ignited a fierce public debate over torture, the report on the so-called white paper by NBC News instantly touched off a renewed, and better informed, public discussion about whether and when a president can order the execution of a citizen based on secret intelligence and without any trial.

The Justice Department prepared the white paper, an unclassified, 16-page document, to brief Congressional oversight committees in lieu of providing lawmakers with the far longer, classified memorandum that justified the killing of Mr. Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Sunni Muslim cleric who joined Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and died in an American drone strike there in September 2011. But the paper dovetails with the legal arguments in that still-secret document, as described to The New York Times in October 2011 by people who have read it.

In short, the Justice Department argued that it was lawful for the government to kill an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” decided that the target was a ranking figure in Al Qaeda who posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if his capture was not feasible. While the administration’s basic legal conclusions had already been aired — including in speeches by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other officials — the white paper provided a far more detailed legal justification.

Some human rights groups dismissed it in language reminiscent of their critiques of the Bush administration’s legal opinions on torture, taking particular aim at its flexible definition of what might constitute an “imminent” threat and the lack of any outside check on its claimed authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the paper “chilling.” A spokeswoman for Amnesty International said there was increasing evidence that American practices were “unlawful, violating the fundamental human right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life.” [Continue reading…]

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