A Justice Department memorandum asserting the Obama administration’s right to kill suspected al-Qaida extremists, even if they’re American citizens, is setting off alarm bells on the political left.
Adam Serwer, for example, SAYS the document
refers to all targeted killing—not just operations using drones, government officials could theoretically send assassins to hunt down suspected terrorists. The paper states that in order to be killed under this program, an individual must be part of Al Qaeda or its “associated forces.” Al Qaeda’s “associated forces” include groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that did not exist in 2001 but that the government nevertheless believes is covered by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Although the administration has previously said that President Barack Obama makes the final call on targeted killing decisions involving Americans, based on recommendations from high-level national security officials, the white paper says that a decision of what it calls “extraordinary seriousness” need not involve the president—nor even multiple people. Instead, the paper argues, a single “high level-official,” whose authority is undefined, can approve a death sentence for an American citizen as long as the target is too difficult for the US government to capture and the loss of civilian life that would result from a targeted killing is not deemed excessive.
When the paper says “imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” however, “imminent” means something other than what you might expect. All it means is that the executive branch of the US government must make a secret, unilateral determination that the person it wants to kill is a member of a terrorist organization: ”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 U.S. persons will take place in the immediate future,” the paper notes. Not since the torture memos themselveshave we seen such a bald defiance of what words actually mean. In the white paper, the government explains its broad definition of “imminent threat” by arguing that delaying a targeted killing “until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself.”