White House Admits 4 Americans Killed in Warrantless Middle East Drone Strikes
May 23, 2013 5:05 PM
Admission comes after months of denials, obfuscation, and silence
On Wednesday while President Barack Hussein Obama was preparing for
his speech on drone death strikes
, his administration acknowledged details on the strikes for the first time publicly.
I. Administration Admits It Killed Americans With Drone Strikes
In his speech today, President Obama preached a message of optimism, suggesting that the "war on terror" might one day be over via "quiet determination; that strength of character and bond of fellowship; that refutation of fear – that is both our sword and our shield."
But their were also grim overtones. Just hours before, on Wednesday, administration took a
begrudging step forward
, confirming -- for the first time -- that four American citizens had been killed in the Middle East with (warrantless) drone death strikes during President Obama's two terms. Three of the four dead Americans were "inadvertent" casualties of strikes on other targets -- only one (Anwar al-Awlaki) was intended to be killed.
This marked a reversal of earlier policies that urged White House Press Secretaries
to dodge or deflect questions on the killings
, which had been the
subject of lawsuits and widespread media reports
The administration in its acknowledgement defended the legality of the killings, arguing the strikes met the standard set forth in
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
[PDF] to Congress, in which he wrote that an American terrorist must be classified as "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans", and be in a place where capture is not a feasible possibility. It says that the President's speech "will discuss why the use of drone strikes is necessary, legal and just, while addressing the various issues raised by our use of targeted action."
President Obama promises to be "transparent" about drone death strikes on American citizens.
[Image Source: AP]
While the President is standing firm on killing Americans who turn to "terrorism", he's also reportedly extending new protections for foreign terrorists. In classified policy guidance he reportedly signed this week, the President rules that strikes on foreigners must meet the same criteria as those on Americans. The policy is expected to reduce strikes in regions like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia -- and
the civilian casualties that have accompanied such strikes
President Obama also wants to transfer the drone strikes program to military control. To date most of the death strikes have been the handiwork of the
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
Some feel the President shouldn't have the power to order the warrantless killings of Americans on U.S. soil. [Image Source: Drone Wars UK]
In his speech, the President somewhat dodged the question of
warrantless drone death strikes on Americans on U.S. soil
, a particular controversial part of the policy AG Holder defended. To date no American is known to have been killed in such a strike, but AG Holder argued it would be legal in some extreme circumstances.
In his speech President Obama seems to suggest strikes on U.S. soil are off-limits, stating:
For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen – with a drone, or 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.
However, the President's wording does not conclusively state that his policy is to never use drone strikes on U.S. soil -- just that he thinks it's a bad idea.
II. Lawsuits, Criticism Heats Up
Critics say the President's defense of drone killings is unacceptable. Zeke Johnson of
The New York Times
, "The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world under the ‘global battlefield’ legal theory and a radical redefinition of the concept of imminence. President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech tomorrow and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed."
His agency has
an active campaign
against the death strikes.
The U.S. does pay "grief payments" of a few thousand dollars to civilian victims of drone strikes, but humanitarian groups say that is not acceptable. The Pakistani judicial system has a current effort to
propose UN war crimes charge
s against the U.S. for the civilian casualties.
Critics say "grief payments" for civilian drone strike victims are not acceptable.
[Image Source: Reuters]
The President acknowledges civilian deaths, but called them a necessary evil in his speech. He comments:
This last point is critical, because much of the criticism about drone strikes – at home and abroad – understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports. Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars. For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live, just as we are haunted by the civilian casualties that have occurred through conventional fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But as Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold. Let us remember that the terrorists we are after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.
The decision to acknowledge drone death strikes on U.S. citizens, also allows legal challenges to the policy to move ahead. The
U.S. Department of Justice
an effort to throw out a case in the
U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California
, which claimed that the death strikes on the four Americans violated due process. The DOJ had been arguing that the drone strikes were not confirmed and thus could not be the subject of a lawsuit, but Wednesday's admission scuttled that argument.
Guantánamo Bay's Prison
In his speech President Obama is also expected to discuss a final path towards closing the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. During his 2007 campaign, the President promised to close that prison,
a controversial legacy
of President George W. Bush's administration. But once elected, President Obama moved sluggishly. Today Guantánamo Bay is
still in operation
, albeit with less inmates than in 2008.
Human rights watchers have complained that the Guantánamo Bay proceedings are a sham.
[Image Source: Getty Images]
President Obama is expected to appoint a
U.S. Department of State
official to spearhead the effort to finish the closure.
IV. President Obama Says He Isn't Targeting Journalists
A final issue addressed in the President's speech was the issue of freedom of the press amidst
the recent seizure of Associated Press phone records
. President Obama claimed the efforts weren't meant to target journalists -- only leakers. He comments:
The Justice Department’s investigation of national security leaks offers a recent example of the challenges involved in striking the right balance between our security and our open society. As Commander-in Chief, I believe we must keep information secret that protects our operations and our people in the field. To do so, we must enforce consequences for those who break the law and breach their commitment to protect classified information. But a free press is also essential for our democracy. I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.
Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs. Our focus must be on those who break the law. That is why I have called on Congress to pass a media shield law to guard against government over-reach. I have raised these issues with the Attorney General, who shares my concern. So he has agreed to review existing Department of Justice guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters, and will convene a group of media organizations to hear their concerns as part of that review. And I have directed the Attorney General to report back to me by July 12th.
President Obama's Justice Department stands accused of spying on AP offices and staffers.
[Image Source: Getty Images]
proposed "Media Shield" law
is currently seeing contentious debate in Congress.
The White House
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