Morris Davis, a retired U.S. military officer and former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantánamo Bay, writes: The disclosure Tuesday evening of the Department of Justice white paper on targeted killing (pdf) has sparked a lot of debate, much of it focused on the Obama administration’s extraordinarily broad interpretation of what constitutes an “imminent” threat that justifies lethal force as an act of self-defense. As Senator Rand Paul (Republican, Kentucky) told reporters during a conference call on Wednesday, “only a team of lawyers could define ‘imminent’ to mean the exact opposite” of what the word means in the real world.
There are, no doubt, many Americans alive today who should be thankful their healthcare providers did not apply the administration’s interpretation of “imminent” to decide if they had crossed over the line of imminent death and said pull the plug.
Some people have acquired power and profits in post-9/11 America by pandering to and perpetuating fear. As has been the case on a range of legal issues – torture, indefinite detention, warrantless surveillance, kill lists – all it takes is for someone to say “terrorism” and “threat to security” in the same breath for the vast majority of the public to handover its principles. Rather than a serious discussion on the proper law/liberty/security balance, too often the public accepts the false syllogism that whatever it takes to stop “them” from hurting “us” is obviously, as White House spokesman Jay Carney might say, “legal, ethical and wise“.
Targeted killing falls into that category. The discussion tends to glom what should be several discrete inquiries – where will the lethal operation take place; who is the imminent threat and why; who will conduct the operation; and what laws apply, among others – into one big ball that slides through with little scrutiny.
The DOJ white paper discusses the right to take military action against a US citizen who is part of the enemy forces, law of war principles that govern application of military power, judicial deference to military judgments in the conduct of warfare, and combatant immunity that gives legal sanction to a deliberate killing by a member of the armed forces acting in compliance with the law of war. In and of themselves, those are all very valid points.
What the white paper ignores, however, is that the US has both a military and a CIA drone program, each one subject to its own rules. The CIA is a civilian agency with civilian employees and civilian contractors. It is not part of the US armed forces and its drone program is not immune from liability by the law of war principles that might apply to the military drone program. [Continue reading…]