Politics, Economics, and the Law
A Closer Look at the NBC Drone Memo
February 7, 2013Posted by on
All those links are good reading, and more thorough analysis than I will do at this time, when there’s not yet much new to say. But for the link-averse, here are a few of the highlights:
Killing an American can happen if the citizen is “a senior operation leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force.” While not amorphous, that’s pretty vague. What is an associated force, exactly? That’s not defined, so I guess it’s whatever the government wants it to be.
This killing will be hunky-dory when:
- An informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States
- capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and
- the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
Let’s talk about (1):
Who is making the decision as to whether a given American citizen is a terrorist? Oh, you know… somebody. They’ll be “informed” and “high-level.” Don’t worry about it, they know what they’re doing. Is there any oversight or review to this decision? Doesn’t seem to be, so I guess we’ll just have to trust whomever makes the call to not make any mistakes, because there’s no clear recourse available should that happen.
But hey, at least we know that should it come to this, at least we’ll know there was an imminent threat against our nation. Well… you know how sometimes you have to interpret a word liberally to make it work in context?
“Certain aspects of this legal framework require additional explication. [. . .] [A]n ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack [. . .] does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
That’s certainly a non-traditional definition of the word.
Also, this totally wouldn’t be an assassination in violation of Executive Order 12333, because it’s an act of “national self defense” against an imminent threat. By which they mean a threat that lacks any clear evidence of its existence, any known target, or any particular time that it might occur. Also, let’s not box ourselves in… the Terrorist might not even be plotting anything at the moment, but if he’s “recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat”, and there’s no evidence he’s turned in his membership card and gone home, we can infer that he’s still hard at it. That assumption is probably generally accurate, but when coupled with the Justice Department’s new-and-improved definition of “imminent,” it appears to open the time-frame up to such a degree as to render it basically meaningless.
“[C]apture would not be feasible if it could not be physically effectuated during the relevant window of opportunity or if the relevant country were to decline to consent to a capture operation. Other factors such as undue risk to U.S. personnel conducting a potential capture operation also could be relevant. Feasibility would be a highly fact-specific and potentially time-sensitive inquiry.”
Part of that sounds pretty reasonable. You can’t capture someone who cannot be reached during a given period of time. That’s just physics, and such. The country in which they reside might not want U.S. forces running around looking for the target (but naturally they’ll be fine with drones dropping bombs within their territory). And whether or not this is feasible would be fact-specific and time-sensitive, which looks a lot like a roundabout way of saying it’s just a judgment call, and one with little in the way of definite criteria. “If you can capture ’em, maybe do that, as long as it’s not too much trouble.”
And what, if anything, does it really mean that “the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible”? The three-point criteria dictate when it’s legal to bomb an American citizen, so I suppose the U.S. will continue to monitor whether capture is becomes feasible, right up until our “person of interest” is exploded?
The paper asserts that all of this is definitely legal, at one point analogizing the action of bombing a declared terrorist to a police officer shooting a dangerous suspect who’s attempting to flee the scene. For reasons illustrated on Lowering the Bar’s commentary, I don’t really think this analogy works. Another argument states, basically, that since this declared terrorist would be an American, it might be argued that killing them would be murder or manslaughter, but those terms only apply to “unlawful killings,” and since the government would be exerting “public authority” then it can’t be unlawful. In short, it would sure be illegal if we weren’t the one’s defining what illegal means. This section is long on assertions, and short on clear analysis.
The whole paper buries the reader in arguments that depend on you acceptance of either questionable propositions or the very conclusions they purport to reach.