Report: US Officials ‘Debating’ Whether to Kill a Fifth American by Drone

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In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, an unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

Details are scarce in this New York Times article by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt:

The Obama administration is debating whether to authorize a lethal strike against an American citizen living in Pakistan who some believe is actively plotting terrorist attacks, according to current and former government officials.

It is the first time American officials have actively discussed killing an American citizen overseas since President Obama imposed new restrictions on drone operations last May.

The officials would not confirm the identity of the suspect, or provide any information about what evidence they have amassed about the suspect’s involvement in attacks against Americans. The debate about whether to put the individual on a kill list was first reported on Monday by The Associated Press.

The first time the Obama administration carried out a targeted killing operation against an American citizen was in September 2011, when a CIA drone killed the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen; officials said little publicly about the operation. The White House acknowledged last year that four American citizens had been killed in drone strikes during Mr. Obama’s time in office. According to the White House, only Mr. Awlaki had been intentionally targeted.

During a speech last May, Mr. Obama said he intended to gradually shift drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon, partly to make them more transparent. American officials said then that drone strikes in Pakistan would continue to be launched by the CIA because Pakistan refuses to allow open American military operations on its soil.

However, under a classified policy issued by Mr. Obama, there is a strong preference for the Pentagon — not the CIA — to carry out drone strikes against American citizens, though the policy is said to allow exceptions if necessary.

American officials said that the new discussions about whether to strike the American in Pakistan had been going on since the middle of last year.

With so little information, it’s difficult to evaluate this proposed strike, but “some believe” this American to be actively planning attacks appears to be a pretty low standard. Last year, the administration tried to defuse controversy over its program of targeted killing by releasing a legal memo limiting the circumstances under which lethal force could be used. According to the white paper, legitimate targets must pose an “imminent threat” to the United States, but the fine print read: “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons will take place in the immediate future.”

Bill discusses the legality of drone warfare with Vicki Divoll, a former deputy legal adviser to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and Vincent Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The administration has long claimed that its drone program targeted only high-level members of terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda, but as Jonathan Landy reported for McClatchy  last year, “the Obama administration has targeted and killed hundreds of suspected lower-level Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other” militants in scores of strikes in Pakistan’s rugged tribal area.”

And while shifting the program from the hands of the CIA to the military is a step in the right direction in terms of transparency and congressional oversight, it’s a distinction that probably means little to the people living in rural Pakistan (or Yemen or Afghanistan). According to a study by human rights lawyers from Stanford and New York University, drones’ “harm to civilians – injuries, killings, and broad impacts on daily life, education, and mental health” has been “under-accounted-for” by policymakers and “must be factored as a severe cost of the US program.”

In addition, it is clear that US strikes in Pakistan foster anti-American sentiment and undermine US credibility not only in Pakistan but throughout the region. There is strong evidence to suggest that US drone strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent nonstate armed groups, and motivate attacks against both US military and civilian targets. Further, current US targeted killing and drone strike practices may set dangerous global legal precedents, erode the rule of law, and facilitate recourse to lethal force.

Under Obama, the use of drones has increased significantly, as this graphic from the New America Foundation illustrates:

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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