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Drone Killing the Fifth Amendment
Posted on Feb 20, 2014
By Peter Van Buren, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here here.
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Justice (jus-tice) n. 1. When the United States Government uses a drone to kill an American for political reasons.
How’s that morning coffee treating you? Nice and warming? Mmmm.
While you’re savoring your cup o’ joe, imagine the president of the United States hunched over his own coffee, considering the murder of another American citizen. Now, if you were plotting to kill an American over coffee, you could end up in jail on a whole range of charges including—depending on the situation—terrorism. However, if the president’s doing the killing, it’s all nice and—let’s put those quote marks around it— “legal.” How do we know? We’re assured that the Justice Department tells him so. And that’s justice enough in post-Constitutional America.
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Supposedly, the one thing that’s held up sending in the drones is the administration’s desire to make sure the kill is “legal.” (Those quotes again.)
Last May, Obama gave a speech on the subject. It was, in part, a response to growing anger in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere over the CIA’s ongoing drone assassination campaigns with all their “collateral damage,” and to the White House’s reported “kill list.” In it, he insisted that any target of the drones must pose “a continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” At the time, the White House also issued a fact sheet that stated: “Lethal force must only be used to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.” While that sounds like a pretty imposing set of hurdles to leap, all of the “legal” criteria are determined in secret by the White House with advice from the Justice Department, but with no oversight or accountability.
Even then, it turns out that the supposedly tortured deliberations of the administration are not really necessary. Despite the president’s criteria, according to an unnamed administration official quoted by the Associated Press, Obama could make an exception to his policy and authorize the CIA to strike on a one-time basis, no matter what the circumstances. One way or another, it is Obama who decides who to kill and when.
At this point, it’s unclear just why the Obama administration leaked its plans in reference to this errant American abroad. After all, official after official has insisted that Edward Snowden’s revelations of secret NSA documents have caused terrorists to change their communication tactics, yet the one American up to no good somewhere in the terrorist world apparently has not done so in response to the leak about his potential fate, and will remain locatable whenever needed as a target. And yet giving notice of a possible attack in advance in the media would, on the face of it, seem both counterproductive and an invitation to the very barrage of criticisms leveled by key officials at Snowden. After all, under the circumstances, an American connected with al-Qaeda wouldn’t exactly have to be a Bond villain to decide to change his behavior and his location, stay indoors or outdoors more, keep off his phone for a while or trade it in for another.
Could the administration leak have been a trick to flush the bad guy out, causing him to panic and run? Was it an elaborate ruse designed to induce widespread concern in al-Qaeda about the liabilities of having American compatriots? Was it a bone thrown to Republicans otherwise eager to paint the president as weak? Could it have been some kind of geopolitical muscle tussle with once compliant but now more assertively anti-drone Pakistan? Or could the leak have been a PSYOP on the American people, an attempt to manipulate us into feeling better about government decisions to kill American citizens by revealing the deliberative and heart-wrenching process Obama goes through? Or could it simply have been an attempt to normalize such acts for us, to make them part of the understandable everyday background noise of a dangerous world?
The answer is: we don’t know. Not yet anyway.
Not the First Time
The Obama administration admits to killing four Americans as part of its war on (or is it “war of”?) terror. We’ll pause here a moment for you to contemplate whether there could have been other, undocumented killings of the same sort awaiting the revelations of some future Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning.
On May 7, 2011, a U.S. drone fired a missile in Yemen aimed at American citizen and key terror suspect Anwar al-Awlaki. The missile blew up a car with two other people in it, quickly labeled “al-Qaeda operatives” after we killed them.
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