Predator drone

Until this week, little was known about the legal framework the U.S. government operates under when ordering the killing of its citizens. But now a leaked Justice Department memo outlines the legal case for some of these attacks. Civil liberties groups decry the policy as an overreach of executive authority. The leak comes as the Obama administration’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, a drone program supporter, is due to appear before the Senate for a confirmation hearing.

Department of Justice Memo on Drone Use

Mary Ellen O'Connell, professor of law and research professor of international dispute resolution at the University of Notre Dame Law School
Robert Worth, reporter, New York Times
Glen Sulmasy, professor, U.S. Coast Guard Academy; national security law fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington D.C.

  • In certain respects it is more troubling from a human rights perspective that the US military is redefining male civilians as “enemy combatants” simply for being within a certain radius of an assumed terrorist. Killing an American terrorist may be unconstitutional, but deeming that a foreign civilian is a “terrorist” and killing him without reason is a war crime. Killing innocent Yemenis simply for their geographic closeness to a terrorist is not hugely different from the kind of rationale used by terrorists when they kill civilians.

    The US has more to answer for than breaching its own citizen’s constitutional rights. It has also breached certain basic human rights.

    • Ehkzu

      Nonsense. Civilian casualties are collateral damage. No redefinition is involved. The notion that you can wage war without any collateral damage is beyond ridiculous. What makes an act of war a war crime is targeting civilians, or acting in wanton disregard of civilian casualties. Neither of which we do–and in fact our military has made great strides in minimizing civilian casualties, often loitering over a target for hours in an effort to pick a time and place that would minimize casualties.

      • “Recently, anonymous government officials have revealed that, for the
        purpose of tracking civilian casualties, the government presumes that
        all military-age males killed in drone strikes are combatants”

        Redefinition is involved, read up on the issue. The US bombs a place with a drone and then *after the fact* declares people in the area as “militants”. As for “collateral damage” it is assumed that such things happen in war but there is some kind of utilitarian calculus that should be done – killing 20 civilians to kill one bad person is just as much a wanton targeting of civilians. Careless civilian deaths are just as unjustified. Think of it if the shoe was on the other foot. What if Donald Rumsfeld is on a civilian airliner. Would the Iraqi army have had a right to shoot down that civilian airliner with all 200 people on board, just to kill that one person? They are just collateral damage after all. Likewise, bombing a village to kill one terrorist is careless and doing so takes on the moral responsibility for the casualties involved.

      • OldVet

        First you redefine war, then you fall back on collateral damage is inevitable in war. Incongruent. The fall out from errors in an assassination campaign can be bigger than the supposed gain of ‘killing bad guys’, cowboy. Hovering assassination drones do not make for allies. Dread of a cowardly enemy; yes. Plotting of revenge; yes. Security… this does not create; just deep hatred. It is good, as Leon Panetta just said…. for jobs.

        The drone boom is a way to make big money! But when these chickens come home to roost, and they will, for technology is transferrable, this innovation will be seen as a de-civilizing force.

        I am ashamed that anyone who has sworn an oath to the constitution…. and read the thing, and can tie their head into the pretzel necessary to see targeted assassination as war, and war undeclared, as legal. It disregards the honor with which actual veterans took that oath, and gives impetus to the 20 vets a day who commit suicide.

        War is not an informal thing: It is Armies vs Armies. Assassination is personal.
        What if someone assassinated your son ‘by mistake’?
        Whisper ‘collateral damage’ to yourself to make it feel better? You are deluding yourself in public.

    • chrisnfolsom

      I totally agree – the nationality is less important than the action. Killing anyone is wrong, although necessary at times. Hopefully limiting the collateral damage is taken as seriously as they say – I cannot understand bombing weddings and such – can’t you track them as they leave?? I think it is a shame that we are arguing about killing Americans as being any different then killing someone from another nation – all life equally important – as I would hope they believe. I believe we look like fools to other countries as we argue that we need to threat our own people differently.

  • VeronicaMP

    Would we do this to Mafioso or anyone in a Drug Cartel? They have arguably killed more people in the U. S. than Al Queada.

  • It just looks like the incumbents and administration are droning on and on…

    Yeah it’s illegal. Why doesn’t that stop them? No respect for the law?

  • Matt

    Dinner and a movie with John Dillinger might get you shot. What’s the problem here?

  • chrisnfolsom

    This is war – not national policy in our country – that is a different subject. In war you are left with different options and I find that targeted drone strikes are much better than air strikes, artillery, or even using soldiers – who use guns and grenades and mortars. Regarding US citizens – in war your citizenship is not an issue – at all. If every bullet, bomb and such had a camera connected to it the carnage seen would be much worse than what we see from the limited drone strikes.

    • OldVet

      This is war. The constitution requires that war be declared… by congress. So we can know what it is for, and what will end it. All military swear an oath to protect that constitution, which grants due process of law….. not summary assassination by fiat.

      Wars are armies against armies. A war on terror is a war on a tactic… like a war on shooters. What is our point in assassinating people all over the world…. to remove opposition?

      The constitution begins with We the People, not we the profs, we the lawyers, or He, the assassinator in chief. Drone assassinations are acts of war (when killing in a foreign land) or a violation of the due process clause against someone at home.

      Unbounded assassination will not make us safe, but the opposite.

      Why do you think the founders had the military swear fidelity to the constitution? Were they dunces? No. They had seen this assassination and torture stuff in their own lived history.

      • chrisnfolsom

        I agree in some sense – I am not necessarily “bloodthursty”, but I do have issues with those who wrap things in “the constitution says this, and the constitution says that” The constitutions is a living document – it has been amended, and the second amendment was not even there when it was initially signed – our interpretation into what is actually law changes as per the interpretations of the Supreme Court.

        Every death is a “summary assassination” as we never really HAVE to pull the trigger or drop the bomb… War changes, and we have made war a remote business – muskets on a battlefield is much more “personal”, and with today’s TV coverage war would be a different reality to most of us.

        My issue as stated below is that we are arguing semantics of a document while essentially saying that killing our own citizens in a war is different then killing citizens from other countries and essentially saying we value their lives less. If a target is really a target – and we allow killing by drone – they they should be terminated regardless of nationality.

        • OldVet

          Factual error about the Bill of Rights of which the second amendment is part. Without the Bill of Rights the good old constitution would not have been ratified… signed. Are we at war? …. if war is undeclared? Legally. On whose authority? Read the Fifth amendment and figure it out yourself.

          The argument is not semantic. The President is executive: the Commander in Chief is the top of the chain of command. The response to him is ‘Yes, Sir.’ When he can select personalities to assassinate, your neighbor is no longer safe, you are no longer safe.

          Read Lord Acton on Power. This is not about personalities, but about systems without bounds.

          • Robert Jackson


          • The only Americans who have been targeted and eliminated were in foreign countries obtaining training in terrorist tactics. The total is three. And guess what? They’ve never been successful in returning to the United States and carrying out an act of terrorism.

        • Robert Jackson

          The trouble is not with “execution” as such, but with the methods used to determine who is to be executed. If one takes the position that any “good guy” has the right or even duty to “take out” any bad guy, which is which depends on where one stands. Sure, it is easy for Americans to chant :Death to terrorists!” just as they chant “Death to Americans”, but then we are just like them, ready to murder anybody who is “deemed” to be “linked”, There are guys in Guantanamo now who gave a cab ride to some “bad guy” and have never been given any due process. In WWII we whipped the fascists without morphing into them
          If all we stand for is secret murder, we are no better
          than the terrorists.

  • Ehkzu

    The good law professor is engaging in anachronism–as if there is only war between sovereign nations, or crime committed by individuals or small groups. For decades now we have experienced war being committed by nonstate actors, sometimes directed by a central entity–as was the case with 9/11–sometimes by individuals, as with the Timothy McVeigh bombing. It’s great to use the police forces of our nation and others to track down and capture such individuals and groups. But it’s not always possible, as in areas where no central authority has control over a region, as is true in Pakistan and Yemen. In those cases we must either accept attack without defending ourselves, invade in force, with huge casualties–including many civilians–or strike with special forces and drones.

    • VeronicaMP

      I think the point is: Who is making the determination? Where is the Due Process? If our rights are not preserved here, they are preserved nowhere. Democracy is not risk free.

  • Robert Jackson

    The question nobody seemed to want to ask is whether murder of “enemies”, by drone or otherwise, is morally right. If anybody “targeted” an American official in this way, it would be considered outrageous, unlawful, evil, cowardly. Have we really reached the point where anything is OK as long as done by “good guys” to “bad guys”, or, those “deemed” to be “linked” to them, in effect murder on suspicion? To many, another example of hypocrisy and double standards, further eroding America’s already tattered moral standing in the world. Surely

    we can stand for something better than this.

    Also, why must I “register” somewhere in order to comment? Is NPR turning into another watchdog for the authorities and their proxies?And now Discus has rejected my entry – an “error”.

    • Um, Robert, do you have the intelligence on the targets that have been eliminated? They “were” very highly ranked leaders of major international terrorist networks. They are disconnected from any sovereign state yet are allowed to exist unofficially within certain established countries. How do you proposed to go about ferreting out such threats? It is my understanding the current technologies and checks and balances in the processes of identifying and targeting high value targets has improved tremendously where collateral damage is all but eliminated. Just look at the most recent Israeli strike on a car in a dense urban area that took out the target without any nearby persons being harmed.

      The problem with your logic is you are basing your perception by way of your own value system. The world of terrorism does not follow your precepts of life.

  • OldVet

    Drones are a symptom of our current untethered mind, and love affair with technology. Because we can we will…. whatever we invent.
    Our ‘leaders’ seemingly cannot imagine this weapon coming back to bite us. And hey, look at the jobs assassination drones create! We are fighting a world war against an undefined (or administration branded) enemy. No end in sight. Think of the jobs!

    If we cannot think our way out of a paper bag, it is likely we will end up living in a cardboard box.

  • Please explain why the subject of targeted *Americans* is raised? How many targeted *Americans* have been attacked/killed versus foreign terrorists operating in other countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.? That’s right. Targeted *American* are not the issue

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