Questions for Brennan on the kill list

February 7, 2013

During the Iraq invasion the U.S. government and military posted its “Most Wanted” list of terrorists or fleeing officials, issued as a deck of cards, complete with a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” tag. The list went out to anyone and everyone, with hefty rewards advertised.

Now, however, the government’s kill list for drone strikes is opaque. It doesn’t even refer to actual people, and sometimes targets places where military-age males suspected of terrorist activity gather.

Congress will have an opportunity Thursday to hear from the man who, with the president, often helps decide who appears on that list. For John Brennan is due to face the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Committee members will be able to ask: Is the U.S. government carrying out strikes on behalf of other regimes? What makes people on these lists a direct threat to the U.S. when there is no evidence they ever plan on coming to America? How can a geographic location make it onto a hit list because it appears to exhibit patterns of suspected terrorist activity?

The administration asserts that people on the kill list are put there after serious, all-other-options-eliminated considerations. Attorney General Eric Holder stated there was a legal basis for such strikes after a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in Yemen in 2011. But NBC News’ disclosure Monday of a leaked Justice Department white paper describing the legal arguments behind the drone strikes, has raised even more questions about how vague that list is.

The Senate Intelligence Committee should have its hands full regarding the paper’s cited three-part test for placing Americans on that list: imminent threat, extremely long odds of capture and carried out according to the law of war principles. The person needn’t be “imminently” planning an attack on U.S. troops or the homeland.

NBC reported that the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee were given the white paper in June. They’ve had ample time to prepare. Perhaps this publicity may push the White House to respond to some senators’ calls to make public these classified memos on targeted killings.

Brennan has already outlined who he believes belongs on that list.

Last May he told the audience during a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington that “in this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate military targets” for drone strikes. He said the drones allow us to “precisely target a military objective while minimizing collateral damage … to distinguish more effectively between an al Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians.” However, while answering questions after the speech, he clarified that he’d been discussing “targeted” strikes, not “signature strikes” – in other words, strikes aimed at specific people, not those directed at places like compounds or training camps, where several people may be killed at once.

It is within the kill list for such signature strikes that the water gets deliberately muddy. It can refer to rocket attacks on training camps or suspicious areas under the control of militants. Reports of civilian casualties from drone strikes on these compounds are rare, since the administration effectively considers all military-age males hit in such zones as combatants, according to a New York Times report last May.

There is some recourse for the family of those killed, however. They may be posthumously cleared if there is explicit intelligence in their favor.

There have been reports that the targeted list has been questioned internally. Bill Daley, former White House chief of staff, is quoted in the same New York Times report as saying, “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20? … At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”

The committee members should attempt to discover who has been killed in strikes in Yemen and Somalia, where the United States has reportedly been acting at the behest of the countries’ governments. Those targeted may well be fighting against their own government, not the U.S. homeland.

At least one senator already has questions ready for Brennan. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter asking for explicit definitions of when it isn’t “feasible” to capture U.S. citizens who are terrorism suspects.

The committee should also address the lack of congressional oversight here. In a new Council of Foreign Relations report, Micah Zenko a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action, calls on Congress to increase its oversight of drone strikes and calls for the U.S. to end the signature strikes.

Senators must also press for clarification about how an American teenager was killed in a rocket strike in Yemen, weeks after the drone strike on his father, Anwar al-Awlaki. This deserves particular attention given Brennan’s comments that such strikes “precisely target” and minimize civilian casualties.

Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave a jarring response last October when asked about the attack on the 16-year-old boy, Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki, who died, according to some reports, with his 17-year-old cousin and several others. The U.S. government has never acknowledged a role in this teenager’s death.

“I would suggest you should have a far more responsible father,” Gibbs said, “truly concerned about the well-being of your children.” Rather than discuss how the boy made it to a kill list ‑ if he had ‑ Gibbs chastised the father. “I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist is the best way of going about your business,” he said.


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