Ahead of Obama’s speech, U.S. acknowledges four American drone killings

Letter from Eric Holder and reports on policy shift do little to allay concerns about endless, boundless drone war

Topics: Drones, Eric Holder, drones strikes, CIA, Pentagon, Barack Obama, Counterterrorism, War on Terror, Speech, Al-Qaida, Human Rights, ,

Ahead of Obama's speech, U.S. acknowledges four American drone killings (Credit: Shutterstock)

On Thursday, President Obama will give the first major speech on counterterrorism of his second term. The New York Times reported that the speech will mark the opening of “a new phase” of counterterror efforts with greater restrictions applied to the use of lethal drone strikes. There’s reason for skepticism.

On Wednesday afternoon, in a letter to Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder for the first time formally acknowledged that U.S. drones had killed four U.S. citizens — including Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son. Bearing out long-held concerns in the human rights community over the description of these strikes as “targeted” killings, only one of these U.S. citizens (al-Awlaki senior) was on the government’s kill list.

The New York Times’ typically administration-friendly report suggests that Obama’s speech will hail the dawn of a new age of high precision, unproblematic drone strikes. The language used in Holder’s letter, however, alongside recent disturbing comments from top Pentagon officials, give us reason to doubt that the boundless, limitless War on Terror is coming to any sort of clean end.

The Times reported:

A new classified policy guidance signed by Mr. Obama will sharply curtail the instances when unmanned aircraft can be used to attack in places that are not overt war zones, countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The rules will impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists.

Lethal force will be used only against targets who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans” and cannot feasibly be captured, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter to Congress, suggesting that threats to a partner like Afghanistan or Yemen alone would not be enough to justify being targeted.

The standard could signal an end to “signature strikes,” or attacks on groups of unknown men based only on their presumed status as members of Al Qaeda or some other enemy group — an approach that administration critics say has resulted in many civilian casualties. In effect, this appears to be a step away from the less restricted use of force allowed in war zones and toward the more limited use of force for self-defense allowed outside of armed conflict.

An end to strikes aimed simply at military-aged males displaying suspicious, “signature” behaviors would certainly be a welcome shift. And indeed any steps taken to limit the number of civilian casualties are to be welcomed. However, the Times seems to be suggesting that there is some clear, transparent standard in place already for targeting American citizens deemed to terrorists (a standard that could be neatly applied to foreign enemies). But to be sure, Holder’s letter makes no such standard clear.

His referral to “a continuing, imminent threat” relies on the same problematic rubric that administration has used all along in justification of lethal drone strikes. As Sarah Knuckey, NYU lawyer and special adviser to the U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, stressed at a recent Congressional hearing, “the legal concepts employed appear to be stretched beyond long-accepted understandings. Particularly concerning are broad or ill-defined interpretations of terms which regulate targeting, including an elongated concept of imminence, ‘associated forces’ and ‘directly participating in hostilities.’”

As legal clinics from NYU and Columbia Law Schools, as well as human rights groups including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, noted in a joint letter last month, the administration’s construal of “imminence” (amongst other concepts) is in vital need of clarification and compliance with international law:

Some administration statements imply that the U.S. government may be attempting to borrow interpretations of “imminence” from the law regarding resort to the use of force (jus ad bellum), which involves a wholly separate inquiry into whether a state can lawfully use force in violation of another state’s sovereignty, to defend itself against an imminent threat.

If Holder’s letter is anything to go by, Obama’s comments Thursday are unlikely to assuage legal advocates and activists around the world demanding that U.S. policy and application of legal concepts apply to international standards. “Much more openness is still needed. The government must disclose its still-secret targeted killing memos so the public can determine if they contain criteria as vague and elastic as its definitions of ‘imminence’ and ‘feasibility of capture,’” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, in response to Holder’s letter.

“Dirty Wars” author and journalist Jeremy Scahill, in an early response to Holder’s letter, highlighted how a new drone policy based on the standards applied for killing U.S. citizens deemed terrorists still needed much explaining:

Attorney General Eric Holder’s letter raises more questions than it answers. While the Obama administration now admits it intentionally killed Anwar Awlaki despite never having charged him with a crime, it continues to insist that the evidence against him is too sensitive to be made public. The assassination of Anwar Awlaki was a watershed moment and crossed a dangerous line. The public has a right to know the full, legal basis for killing an American citizen without providing him any access to due process. How would Awlaki have surrendered when he was not even charged with a crime? How do you surrender to a drone?

Meanwhile, the Times notes that “Obama hopes to refocus the epic conflict that has defined American priorities since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and even foresees an unspecified day when the so-called war on terror might all but end, according to people briefed on White House plans.” And yet there have been troubling signals in recent months that drawing the boundless, limitless War on Terror to an end is far from the U.S. defense schedule. Firstly, plans to shift drone programs increasingly from the CIA to the Pentagon will codify shadow drone wars as fully integrated into modern U.S. warfare. Secondly, recent comments by top Pentagon officials to a Congressional hearing asserted that the War on Terror would continue without geographical boundary for at least another decade or two. Defending AUMF and its current controversial iteration, the assistant defense secretary told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that U.S. military operations against al-Qaida and associated forces “is going to go on for quite a while… beyond the second term of the president. . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

Obama is expected Thursday to vehemently defend drone strikes as crucial counterterror operations, while attempting to assuage concerns about civilian casualties with the promise of more restricted policy. But the details of this policy and its undergirding tenets show no sign of making it into public view.


Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>