SOTU: Obama expands scope of potential drone victims

Micah Zenko writes at the Council on Foreign Relations blog:

Obama’s declaration that the United States would go after “terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans” muddied the scope of who can be legitimately targeted. The Obama administration is careful to offer a range of adjectives to describe who can be lawfully targeted. Previous definitions include:

  • John Brennan: “Individuals who are a threat to the United States” (September 16, 2011)
  • Department of Justice: “Senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” (November 8, 2011)
  • Eric Holder: “Specific senior operational leaders of al-Qaeda and associated forces” (March 5, 2012)
  • Harold Koh: “High-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks” (March 25, 2012)
  • Obama: “Our goal has been to focus on al-Qaeda and to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America” (September 6, 2012)

Obama’s “gravest threat to Americans” characterization is by far the most expansive definition for who can be killed by a U.S. official thus far. (The Oxford Dictionary defines grave as “giving cause for alarm or concern and solemn or serious.”) This does away with previous clarifying terms such as “senior” or “operational” leaders of al-Qaeda, any notion of attacks that are “imminent,” and the necessity to protect the U.S. homeland. This new and sweeping definition of who is “targetable” is troubling since it is open to interpretation by the executive branch interpretation [emphasis own], and was purposefully and deliberately included in a State of the Union address.

Marcy Wheeler notes that John Brennan used the same qualifying term “grave” at his confirmation hearings:

BRENNAN: Right, exactly. But the actions that we take on the counterterrorism front, again, are to take actions against individuals where we believe that 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.

If the US does predicate future drone strikes on the basis of individuals who present a “grave” threat to Americans, it will be interesting to see how they try and justify that in the context of international law. Their many perversions of international law certainly have not gone unnoticed – but as Zenko observes, this new development marks the most threatening expansion of what a valid target for the administration is.

Why couldn’t the administration make the case that individuals like Wheeler pose a “grave” threat to America – insofar as her work probably “gives cause for alarm or concern” amongst members of government who would like to keep this sort of critical thinking under wraps? And what if Pakistan responded to the “grave” threats of American drone strikes and military presence in the region by retaliating with military force? If the Chinese government perceives a grave threat in the form of military encroachment and encirclement by the US, are they allowed to arbitrarily target American military personnel?

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