A U.S. drone in the sky over Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan. Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
“An American citizen who is a member of al-Qaida is actively planning attacks against Americans overseas, U.S. officials say, and the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to kill him with a drone strike and how to do so legally under its new stricter targeting policy issued last year,” those officials tell The Associated Press.
The wire service writes that “four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him.”
The Washington Post, which has followed up on the AP report, writes that “U.S. officials” it has spoken with “said that no decision has been reached on whether to add the alleged operative to the administration’s kill list, a step that would require Justice Department approval under new counterterrorism guidelines adopted by President Obama last year.”
CNN writes that a senior U.S. official says “high-level discussions” are under way about “staging an operation to kill an American citizen involved with al-Qaida and suspected of plotting attacks against the United States.”
That network adds that the official “declined to disclose any specific information about the target or the country the suspect presides in.”
The Post writes that “U.S. officials have not revealed the identify of the alleged operative, or the country where he is believed to be located, citing concern that disclosing those details would send him deeper into hiding and prevent a possible drone strike.”
The AP says it “has agreed to the government’s request to withhold the name of the country where the suspected terrorist is believed to be because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterror operations.”
One year ago, the Justice Department drew up a “white paper” defining when it believes an American citizen overseas can and cannot be the target of a U.S. drone strike. As NPR’s Carrie Johnson reported last February, “the document says the U.S. doesn’t need clear evidence of a specific attack to strike.” The definition of what poses an imminent threat appears to be “a little stretchy, like a rubber band,” she added. She also said that the memo makes the case that the U.S. government “doesn’t have to try all that hard to capture someone” if they are in another country and trying to grab them would be an “undue burden.”
Three months later, in May 2013, President Obama said in a policy address that:
“I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process, nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.
“But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”
Continuing, Obama spoke about the Sept. 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen. Awlaki, said the president:
“Was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S.-bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab — the Christmas Day bomber — went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and his last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil. I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot, but we couldn’t. And as president, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took him out.”
Today’s reports about what the Obama administration is said to be debating prompted this statement from the American Civil Liberties Union’s Hina Shamsi:
“The government’s killing program has gone far beyond what the law permits, and it is based on secret evidence and legal interpretations. The targeted killing of an American being considered right now shows the inherent danger of a killing program based on vague and shifting legal standards, which has made it disturbingly easy for the government to operate outside the law. The fact that the government is relying so heavily on limited and apparently unreliable intelligence only heightens our concerns about a disastrous program in which people have been wrongly killed and injured. Today’s revelations come as the administration continues to fight against even basic transparency about the thousands of people who have died in this lethal program, let alone accountability for the wrongful killings of U.S. citizens.”
Monday’s reports come the same day as new details about how data the National Security Agency gathers during its surveillance of telephone and Internet traffic are then allegedly used to locate those who are the targets of drone strikes.
The Washington Post reported last October about that link from the NSA’s work to the drone strikes. Today, a new website — The Intercept — writes that the NSA “is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes.” The Intercept bases that reporting on information provided by “a former drone operator for the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) who also worked with the NSA. … His account is bolstered by top-secret NSA documents previously provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden.”
The Intercept is the debut online site from First Look Media. Its editors include Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, two of the journalists who broke the Snowden leaks last summer.