US: Drone strikes are legal, ethical and wise

The White House defended US President Barack Obama's power to wage drone war after a justice department memorandum argued that Americans high up in al-Qaeda could be lawfully killed, even if intelligence fails to show them plotting an attack.

The disclosure by NBC news, which posted a link to the white paper on its web page, came as US drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere face increasing scrutiny and questions from human rights groups.

"We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, to prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives," said White House spokesperson Jay Carney.

"These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."

Among the most controversial of the attacks were the September 2011 killings in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, which stoked concern because the two were US citizens who had never been charged with a crime.


"I would point you to the ample judicial precedent for the idea that someone who takes up arms against the United States in a war against the United States is an enemy and therefore could be targeted accordingly," Carney said.

An 'undue risk' to US personnel
The white paper offers a more expansive definition of self-defence and imminent attack than those given publicly in the past by senior US officials, who have cited "the inherent right to self-defence" in defending the attacks.

"The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memorandum says.

Instead, an "informed, high-level" official could decide that the targeted individual posed "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" if he had "recently" engaged in such activities, and there was no evidence he had renounced or abandoned them.

The memorandum also says the individual's capture must be unfeasible, and can be considered so if capture posed an "undue risk" to US personnel.

The 16-page report is entitled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaeda or An Associated Force".

NBC said the report was given to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees in June on condition it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Its leak comes just two days before White House counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, goes before the Senate for hearings on his nomination to be head of the CIA.

'Kill American terrorism suspects in secret'
Brennan has been a central player in the US drone campaign, which has expanded sharply under President Obama despite qualms about its legality and public outrage in Pakistan over civilian deaths.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued to obtain the legal document used to authorise the killing of Awlaki, a radical preacher, called the white paper "chilling".

"According to the white paper, the government has the authority to carry out targeted killings of US citizens without presenting evidence to a judge before the fact or after, and indeed without even acknowledging to the courts or to the public that the authority has been exercised.

"Without saying so explicitly, the government claims the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret," he wrote on the union's website.

Spies
Administration officials fiercely defend the drone program as key to the US strategy against al-Qaeda, in a war against terrorism with no geographic boundaries.

"It's been an important part of our operations against al-Qaeda, not just in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, in Somalia and I think it ought to continue to be a tool we ought to use where necessary," outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with Agence France-Press last week.

Meanwhile, inside the US, lawmakers in at least nine states were working on measures to restrict the use of drones in their skies due to worries that the unmanned vehicles could be used to spy on Americans at home.

The union says the states so far are Oregon, California, Montana, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia and Florida. – AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Stephen Collinson
Guest Author

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

ANC’s rotten apples on the chopping block

Now that the NEC has finalised its step-aside guidelines for those facing corruption charges, a swathe of officials will struggle to cling to their positions

Sisulu and Dlodlo punted to be on their way out

Because President Cyril Ramaphosa won the step-aside order in the ANC’s national executive committee, a cabinet reshuffle looms, with Sisulu and Dlodlo’s names on comrades’ lips

More top stories

More ethnically diverse bone marrow donors needed to save lives

The myth that regenerative stem cells are body parts has led to donor reluctance

Khaya Sithole: The real weapons of mass destruction

Ratings agencies and derivatives caused the housing bubble, but where does the next financial crisis lurk?

Analysts expecting another attack ‘in the next few months’ in...

The extremist insurgency in Mozambique has been an ongoing threat since 2017. SADC needs to act now, say analysts

SIU probes how master of the high court fleeces the...

While the SIU delves into dozens of allegations of fraud, corruption and misconduct against officials at the master of the high court, many families have been left destitute after the death of their loved ones.
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…