If the Government Can Kill Americans Overseas with Drones, Why Couldn’t It Happen Here?

February 13, 2013 | Posted by Enrique

In his State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama did not comment specifically on his policy of killing people with drones without oversight. He obliquely mentioned it when he said, “I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” And he said a bunch of other stuff that we have no reason to believe is true.

Admittedly, Americans are not particularly alarmed about Obama’s institutionalization of drone murder. Most of us seem to assume that drone assassinations will only be carried out against people we know for sure to be terrorists. Given the government’s long history of dishonesty and incompetence, that would not be a safe assumption. What’s more, with public officials trying to expand the use of drones within the U.S., what assurances do we have that domestic assassinations are out of the question? The assumption that “it can’t happen here” does not appear to be well founded.

The story so far…

Artist’s rendering of due process in Obama’s America

As you are no doubt aware, the U.S. crossed a pretty serious line back in 2011 when it used drones to kill American citizens in Yemen, without what most reasonable people would recognize as due process. One strike killed two U.S.-born terror suspects, Anwar Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Obama has said that Al-Awlaki “took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans … and he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.” Khan was the editor of a pro-jihad magazine called Inspire. The evidence that these two men posed an imminent threat to the U.S. has never been presented.

Even more disturbing was another drone strike weeks later that killed Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman. To my knowledge, the younger Al-Awlaki has never been accused of anything other than having bad father, as if that’s something he could control.

To be sure, the U.S. has used drones to indiscriminately kill people of several nationalities. Turning these weapons on American citizens simply represents the lengths the White House is willing to go to dispatch those that it judges to be a threat.

This policy has begged the question: How exactly does the Executive Branch judge someone worthy on being placed on the kill list? Since Americans are theoretically entitled to constitutional protections, one would hope the criteria for assassinating U.S. citizens would be especially stringent.

It would be a vain hope. Last week, a leaked Justice Department memo outlined the legal rationale for killing U.S. citizens suspected of supporting terrorism. The view of self-defense expressed in the memo leaves much to be desired:

“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 U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

In other words, an imminent threat now means a threat that may or may not present itself at some unspecified point in the future. That’s a fairly Orwellian interpretation of “imminent.” One might say it’s an imminence front. (It’s a put on.)

More chilling is the memo’s redefinition of due process. Due process has always been understood to be (I don’t mean to be obvious) a process: informing an accused person of the charges against them, giving them the opportunity to answer those charges before a neutral arbiter, requiring the state to meet a burden of proof, etc. The Justice Department drone memo asserts that it is mindful of due process – and then says due process has been met if the Executive Branch decides it has. This is a dangerous precedent.

Despite the increased attention, the White House has said it will not release any additional information about drone killings for the foreseeable future. Any why should it? The American public is overwhelmingly supportive of using drones to kill “people in foreign countries whom the US government says are terrorists and present an imminent threat.”

Even if most folks don’t understand the Justice Department’s expansive definition of “imminent,” I have a feeling they would support drone strikes on just about anyone the government tells them is a threat…in foreign countries, anyway. I’m not generally optimistic about the sophistication of U.S. “likely voter” poll respondents, but I wonder if they would be as enthusiastic about killing people with drones within America’s borders.

Once we’ve established that the White House has unrestricted power to kill American citizens overseas without so much as a by your leave – what exactly is preventing that power from being exercised domestically? It’s a question we probably should be asking ourselves, particularly since public officials all over the U.S. are trying to either get their hands on drones, or expand the use of the drones they already have.

Some folks are trying to restrict the use of drones, but given current trends, it’s not hard to imagine drones being used more and more for law enforcement and public safety in the coming years. Here is a brief overview of how the drone debate is playing out all over the country:

Washington: Seattle police had bought two drones with a Homeland Security grant, ostensibly for hostage situations and search-and-rescue operations. Amid protests, the mayor cancelled the program.

Florida: Police have expressed interest in using drones for crowd control, since they would be more cost effective than helicopters. The state legislature rejected this reasoning, and has banned using drones for crowd control…but they can still be used for “certain emergencies, suspected terrorism and surveillance that’s been approved by a judge.”

North Dakota: Last year, North Dakota became the first state to arrest a U.S. citizen with the help of drone surveillance. A few months later, a court upheld authorities’ use of the drone.

Texas: The Department of Safety has used drones in the past, but a state lawmaker has introduced a bill to limit their use (though not ban them).

California: The sheriff of Alameda County was scheduled to make his case for using drones to local lawmakers this week. Like Seattle, it appears he will play the hostage-situation-search-and-rescue card.

Despite the best efforts of responsible adults, it’s clear that public officials have an appetite for drones. If drones are used more extensively by law enforcement agencies – which appears to be inevitable – how do we know they won’t be used to kill people within the U.S.?

The War on Drugs and post-9/11 fears about homeland security have driven the growth of highly militarized police forces. It’s not exactly unheard of for SWAT raids to result in mistakes that lead to serious injuries or deaths.

These are the same people who are going to be responsible for using drones – the same drones we have now established have no due process restrictions on when they can be used to kill people. Putting it mildly, it might be a good time to reconsider the accountability mechanisms we have in place when it comes to drones.

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