Brennan defends drone strikes and “targeted killings” of terrorist suspects, including American citizens

Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. SOURCE: WIkipedia

White House Counter-terrorism Adviser John Brennan defended the overseas targeted killings of Al Qaeda terrorist suspects, including American citizens, arguing that “lethal force” is necessary to prevent imminent attacks against the United States.

Last week, the Obama administration authorized the release of a white paper on the legal justifications of the use of “lethal force” against U.S. citizens who are members of Al Qaeda or associated terrorist groups.

The white paper was prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in connection with the September 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar Al Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and radical Islamic cleric accused of inciting terrorist acts against the United States, including the failed “underwear” bombing of a Northwest flight to Detroit, the attempted 2010 Times Square car bombing, and the Fort Hood mass shooting by Maj. Nidal Hasan.

A subsequent drone strike in October 2011 in Yemen killed Awlaki’s then 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, also an American citizen. Neither Anwar al Awlaki nor his son, Abdulrahman, were ever charged with a terrorism-related crime.

Read more: Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s father sues U.S. government over deadly drone strikes

The OLC concluded that an “individual’s [U.S.] citizenship would not immunize him from a lethal operation”.

Brennan, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Leon Panetta as the next CIA Director, insisted that “lethal force” is used only as a “last resort” against terrorist suspects who pose an “imminent threat” against United States.

“I think that the American people would be quite pleased to know we’ve been very disciplined, very judicious, and we only use these authorities and capabilities as a last resort,” Brennan testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I think there’s a mis-impression on the part of some Americans people who believe that we take strikes to punish terrorists for past transgressions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there is no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat…I think they really have a misunderstanding of what we do as a government and the care that we take and the agony that we go through to make sure that we do not have any collateral injuries or deaths.”

In the case of Awlaki, Brennan confirmed that the American cleric’s activities extended beyond well-known his fiery anti-American sermons and rhetorics. Brennan revealed the Awlaki oversaw the Al Qaeda plot to blow up two U.S. cargo planes by hiding explosives inside printer cartridges.

“Before he died, [Awlaki] was intimately involved in activities that were designed to kill innocent men, women, and children and mostly Americans. He was determined to do that. He was not just a propagandist. He was, in fact, part of the operational effort that was known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and had key responsibilities in that regard,” Brennan emphasized.

When asked whether it would have been possible to have arrested Awlaki in Yemen instead of killing him, Brennan explained that capturing Awlaki was not a feasible option given that “there are parts of Yemen that are ungoverned and beyond the reach of the Yemeni government’s security… and intelligence services.”

Brennan stressed that the CIA’s objective is to, whenever possible, take a terrorist suspect into custody, interrogate and debrief them to collect more intelligence information, and eventually prosecute them.

“We do that because it’s very valuable for us. Any actions that are taken in concert with the Yemeni government are done in terms of the types of strike…are done only because we don’t have the ability to bring those individuals into custody,” said Brennan. “I can say unequivocally…that there’s not been an occasion I’m aware of where we had the opportunity to capture a terrorist and we didn’t and we decided to take a lethal strike.”

Some lawmakers expressed concern that the decision to authorize targeted killings of American citizens rests solely with the President of the United States.

“Having the executive being the prosecutor, judge, the jury, and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions of the laws of this country,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

King suggested establishing an expedited and confidential court process modeled after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [FISA] to verify that any American citizen targeted is, in fact, an enemy combatant before the drone strikes are carried out. Having a FISA-like court for targeted killings would provide some checks on the executive branch, King argued.

While Brennan expressed a willingness to discuss the idea, he also made a point of distinguishing the role the court plays versus the role the executive branch plays when it comes to dealing with terrorism.

“Our judicial tradition is that a court of law is used to determine one’s guilt or innocence for past actions, which is very different from the decisions that are made on the battlefield as well as actions that are taken against terrorists because none of those actions are to determine past guilt for those actions that they took. The decisions that are made are to take action so that we prevent a future action so that we protect American lives. That is an inherently executive branch function to determine, and the commander-in-chief and the chief executive has the responsibility to protect the welfare, well-being of American citizens,” said Brennan. “The actions that we take on the counter-terrorism front…are to take actions against individuals where we believe the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious as well as imminent that we have no recourse except to take this action that may involve a lethal strike.”

Brennan’s response echoed the OLC’s conclusion that the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to life, due process, and protection from unwarranted seizures are outweighed by the “United States’ interest in forestalling the threat of violence and death to other Americans.”

When asked whether the President should give a U.S. citizen an opportunity to surrender before ordering a drone strike, Brennan countered that any American who joins Al Qaeda or its affiliates would know by now that they “are part of an enemy against us and that the United States will do everything possible to destroy that enemy to save American lives.”

 

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3 Comments on “Brennan defends drone strikes and “targeted killings” of terrorist suspects, including American citizens

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