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A war on terror where the rules don’t apply

Analysis: The United States may have to abandon the moral high ground following embarrassing revelations about drone attacks and its treatment of terror suspects — even against its own citizens.

Drone model white house 2013_02_06Enlarge
A model of a drone on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — It's been a bad week for Washington’s image.

First, a leaked Justice Department memo provided a handy legal framework to justify the US government’s killing of its own citizens without even a semblance of due process. Then a report by a respected international body alleged, in excruciating detail, gross violations of international law by the United States and its allies in a process known as “extraordinary rendition.”

And Tuesday night, The New York Times website revealed the location of a previously secret drone base in Saudi Arabia from where the United States launches strikes against Al Qaeda militants inside Yemen — including US citizens.

The revelations come at a particularly sensitive time for Barack Obama. As he heads into his second term, the president is crafting a new foreign policy agenda with a brand new team. Confirmation hearings for Obama's pick for the Pentagon were very contentious, and the nominee, Chuck Hagel, hasn't yet been confirmed.

Another key post, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, is also likely to be hard going for the White House, with John Brennan set to face the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.

The Justice Department’s “white paper” — which was given to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees last year and leaked this week to NBC News — lays out the circumstances under which the executive branch can order the targeted killing of a US citizen outside a battleground area.

There are three conditions specified: an “informed, high-level official” must decide that the targeted individual poses an “imminent threat” of violent attack against the United States; capture must be deemed “infeasible”; and the operation must be conducted “in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

But in a remarkable contortion of logic and syntax, any real limitations evaporate like a puff of smoke.

The word “imminent,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, means “ready to take place.” That is much too confining for the Justice Department, however; after all, according to the memo, “the US government may not be aware of all Al Qaeda plots as they are developing, and thus cannot be confident that none is about to occur.”

So a “broader definition of imminent” is required. In effect, that means no information about a specific plot or action is needed to land an individual on Washington’s “Kill List.”

The argument is far from academic: To date, three US citizens are reported to have been killed in targeted drone strikes. Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born imam closely associated with Al Qaeda, was killed in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011. Samir Khan, a US citizen from North Carolina, died in the same drone strike, and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s teenaged son, was killed a few weeks later, also in Yemen.

The strike reportedly originated at a US drone base inside Saudi Arabia; the administration had sought to keep the base secret, but media including The New York Times and The Washington Post have just made its location public.

White House officials had requested that the media hold the story, citing worries that revealing the location would undermine a hunt for an Al Qaeda affiliate and risk damaging ties with Saudi Arabia, The Washington Post said.

Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, has filed a wrongful death suit against the US government.

In December, the Obama administration urged a federal court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the issue was best handled by the government’s “political branches” rather than the judiciary.

The suit is unlikely to get far, but questions about the legality of the killings remain. Another US citizen, Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn, is on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list.

Congress, for one, is concerned about executive overreach. A bipartisan group of senators has sent a letter to the president asking that “any and all legal opinions that lay out the executive branch’s official understanding of the president’s authority to deliberately kill American citizens” be made available to the legislature, Politico reported.

The senators’ language was genteel, but underneath was a thinly veiled threat.

“The executive branch's cooperation on this matter will help avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate's consideration of nominees for national security positions,” they wrote.