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Chilling legal memo from Obama DOJ justifies assassination of US citizens (theguardian.com)
290 points by devx on Sept 24, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 158 comments

For those who regularly ask why these stories appear on HN:

The president's underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president - at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as "Terror Tuesday" - then chooses from "baseball cards" and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.

This should be daily news everywhere until it is addressed and we start scaling back the War on Humanity. This is simply not how America is supposed to work.

But if it is simply how it does work, maybe that means it should be changed to something where the President doesn't have as much power.

IMO the real problem is America's Electoral system. Because there is no rank voting, the choices are the warmongering party, the slightly-less-warmongering party, or wasting your vote.

Even if the President had more power than it does now, it couldn't get away with these things if citizens had the ability to relevantly vote for another person/party. They would simply vote for whoever else was closest to their beliefs but not e.g. killing Americans without due process.

You address an important topic, but I think the problem at hand comes from a more fundamental dysfunction within the system. Once a president is elected into office, he/she is in charge for a minimum of four years, almost guaranteed. We can't simply rely on improving the chances of getting better people into office for at least two reasons: a lot of damage can be done in four years, and even then, most of the electoral branch isn't elected by The People and at least some of it is allowed to carry influence from one president to the next.

I believe the most effective way to solve this problem will be to approach it from many angles with the ultimate purpose of restoring accountability to the executive branch. Improving voting methodology seems to be one of many possibly useful angles. Another might be to put weight on congress to begin scaling back the powers of the executive, such as by repealing the Patriot Act, defunding the NSA, etc. Another still might be to support legislation to protect the voices of other power structures and communication enablers, such as the internet, journalism in general, and organizations like Wikileaks.

Sorry, I suppose this doesn't really bring any new insights to the table. Rather, my point is that there's this really big problem (an overly powerful branch of government) that's been brewing for a while, and it's going to take a lot more than a single fix the repair the whole machine.

Of course, any single effort is better than no effort---I absolutely do not wish to discourage!

I don't think the Executive Branch is overly powerful. Hear me out! Anything significant has to be approved by both houses of Congress, and our Judicial system can overrule all three of them (Something that should never go away).

Winston Churchill reputedly said "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else." Our system of "checks and balances" makes it extremely slow and difficult to accomplish anything. Consider the current defunding issue. The Republican party has been taking the US to the brink of shutdown every few months—despite the American people voting against them in the last election. I'm not trying to bash the Republican party. My point is, I think the Executive branch actually has fairly limited power. I think it might actually be better for accomplishing things if it had a bit more.

I think the real issue is legitimacy. One way to improve legitimacy is to elect the person Everyone Hates The Least, rather than who Everyone Loves The Most. Hence my ranked voting suggestion.

I definitely agree we should approach it from many angles. But as you say: accountability. I think the real problem is Legitimacy, not Power.

Every voting system has its pros and cons. The nature of the voting system influences how candidates campaign but it's not the only mechanism that affects how government operates. It's a far to simplistic suggestion to say that "rank voting" would solve the problem. For that matter, why not any of the other dozen different types of voting systems?

In short, the voting system is ingrained into the constitution and will not change in the foreseeable future.

> It's a far to simplistic suggestion to say that "rank voting" would solve the problem. For that matter, why not any of the other dozen different types of voting systems?

"Rank voting" is dozens of different voting systems; its essentially one of the major kinds of ballots -- FPTP-style vote-for-one ballots are used in two main voting systems (both often referred to as FPTP): plurality and majority-runoff; "rank voting" is used in many voting systems (IRV, Borda, Bucklin, Coombs, and pretty all the Condorcet methods); and there are a few voting systems (e.g., approval) that use different balloting mechanisms -- though most of them (including the FPTP style and the approval style ballots) are special constrained cases of rank voting ballots.

> In short, the voting system is ingrained into the constitution and will not change in the foreseeable future.

Actually, nothing in the Constitution requires either FPTP or single-winner constituencies (except, arguably, indirectly single-winner for Senate seats by way of the 1/3-per-two-years requirement.) Forms of FPTP -- both majority-runoff and plurality -- are adopted as matters of state election law, and single-member, geographically-defined legislative districts have been required since the civil rights era as a matter of federal statute as a response to states that used FPTP in multimember state-wide districts to effectively disenfranchise minorities (the same could be prevented while allowing multimember districts by using a system that produces proportional results -- including candidate-centered systems like STV as well as things like party-list proportional.)

Very little of the US system of elections is set in the federal Constitution -- about the only part that is is the Electoral College for Presidential elections, and even there the matter of how electors are chosen is expressly left to the state legislatures.

> matters of state election law

Yep. There are actually a very few cities which use Instant-runoff voting


Unfortunately, the people who have to pass laws for non-FPTP voting, are the people it would displace :(

> Unfortunately, the people who have to pass laws for non-FPTP voting, are the people it would displace

In many states, the only people needed to pass laws for non-FPTP voting are the people of the state -- at least for elections other than those for Presidential electors, because of initiative/referendum processes.

Sure, under the Constitution, the rules for electing Presidential electors are left to state legislatures, but once you've changed the election rules for those offices, it should be easier to get people in them that aren't attached to FPTP.

Approval voting, for example. Rank voting is ripe for tactical voting, too.

All voting systems are ripe for tactical voting; approval voting has the additional problem that ballots lack consistent meaning (a ranking, especially if it doesn't use forced preferences because it allows ties, has consistent meaning; "approval" vs. "disapproval" does not.)

The problem with FPTP isn't that its ripe for tactical voting, its that it maximizes the difference in expressed preferences that are completely ignored by the voting system, maximizing the need to vote tactically in order to have a vote that isn't equivalent to abstention.

How would you vote tactical in approval voting? (By tactical I mean, a vote that's not in accordance with your naive preferences.)

I wasn't really trying to suggest Rank Voting is the best system. Just that First Past the Post is the worst.

Your description doesn't account for a President who doesn't care about getting re-elected. Imagine how much a unitary executive could get away with if they really wanted to.

Electoral processes are certainly an issue, but it's distinct from the problem of separation of powers that has enabled Presidents to carve out immense impunities for themselves and their favored.

As in nationalized health care, the US should be following those countries with higher standards of living and incorporate a Parliamentary system (or whatever) and eliminate much Presidential power, particularly where the military is concerned.

I agree that the president is too powerful, but I don't see how a parliamentary system would fix it. From a separation-of-powers perspective, Commonwealth PMs look very much like elected dictators.

"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," and all that.

Rank voting didn't help in Australia where the media is compromised.

Governments violate the laws when it is in the supreme interest of the country, this is called "Raison d'État".

This doesn't make it any less chilling, but we shouldn't be too naive about it.

> Governments violate the laws when it is in the supreme interest of the country

That's the beginning of a long, steep slippery slope. Who decides what is "the supreme interest of the country"? And who keeps a check on the laws that are violated in the pursuit of that goal?

a new gang of people who usually went to school together, that we choose (usually... diebold ... die bold ... risk it all take everything) every 4 years. supposedly we do this every 4 years to balance the power they wield from veering too far left or right and sticking to the countries interest.

Yes, we shouldn't be too naive about it, which is the very reason why we should be outright enraged about it happening.

I thought raison d'etat was about a state deciding its dealings with other states solely on the basis of national self interest rather than moral or legal principles. It's that doctrine's failure in Europe and subsequent laws that lead to the idea of 'international law', right?

As far as I know it does not apply to a government violating its own laws.

Edit: subsequent WARS, not laws.

I am in full agreement, but I have to ask, why now? This hasn't been news for years.

Here's what's happening: intelligent people are having a desperately needed conversation about the full spectrum of related problems having to do with absolutely terrifying assertions of extra-judicial executive power.

This is relevant. That's why it's part of the conversation.

Well said. When atrocities are occurring, the question isn't "why now?" the question is "Why haven't we done anything about this?"

If you're referring to the ongoing NSA scandals, I actually think that the government claiming the power to kill citizens without trial, accusation, or evidence is much worse. It doesn't bother you that the random assassination power is only called into question because of the surveillance power?

Here's loweringthebar.net mocking the story in 2011 (this story would appear to be almost exactly two years old; the commenter saying "we elected Change and we're waiting for it" might reflect that this is the Change we elected): http://www.loweringthebar.net/2011/12/for-christmas-your-gov...

How did "the government will read your email" become a bigger outrage than "the government can kill you at any time without warning and without ever having to justify itself"?

(If you're referring to something else, please enlighten me)

What I'm refering to is exactly what I said I'm refering to: the full spectrum of issues related to unchecked executive power. In other words, I'm not looking at these as seperate problems which can be stacked from bad to worse. Which is not to say people can't consider things in these terms, just that I'm not doing this. I'm doing what mathematicians do when they look for the most general yet concice expression to cover a range of instances.

And yes, that obviously includes the NSA. But it also includes the transformation of the CIA into a paramilitary force, the transformation of the FBI from a federal level police force into a domestic intelligence agency focused on "national security", secret interpretations of law surrounding the the Patriot Act, unaccountable militarization of police forces up to and including the offices of prosecutors (tactics driven largely by the Drug War), and of course, the explosive growth of what has become the world's largest prison system, which we chillingly refer to as 'an industry' as though there were anything productive about destroyig people's minds using solitary confinement. And let's not forget prisons that operate completely outside the law, where the normal rules about trials, evidence, and expediency are a abandoned altogether. Topping it all off is the culture of fear, suspicion, and paranoia that pervades the agencies involved. The unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to terrify whistle blowers, actual or potential, fits squarely with a general pattern of escalating abuse. Indeed, that's one of the most frightening aspect of this entire development since it indicates that the people at the heart of this know that what they're doing is wrong and that it won't stand up to public scrutiny, but they're doing it anyway.

HN is full of people attuned to systems. And what we're seeing here is a system getting completely, dangerously, wildly out of control. And not just any system, but one that keeps coming back to work done by a lot of people here. Even if it weren't for these unnerving personal connections, HN readers are far more likely than most to recognize deep systemic problems when they occur, and to see them in those terms. That leads to a desire to identify root causes, which leads to a general problem in the inescapable lawlessness of the Executive Branch. In essence it is treating the problems and conditions of normal life as though they were a formal state of war, and adopting the vastly more expansive and unaccountable set of powers that actual war permits.

That must end.

Why now? Because we elected Change, and we're waiting for it. The question should be "Why NOT now?". Of all times, when the most vocal of Americans enjoy a popular President, why wait until the tide changes to press for the change we all see is needed?

> Because we elected Change

A little off-topic, but I'm always reminded of this: http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/248462/attack-of-the-c...

It's not "why now?", it's "why still not?".

If the country that plays the role of the World's police becomes/is corrupt (to that degree), then there is no hope for the World.

Where is the press, where are the protesters?

Its not hard to understand why it does not change. Its sad that criticism can be blunted by the fear of being labeled.

not sure about the press, but the protests will only happen if this is affecting the average american, whose comfortable life is being maintained - until suddenly, the average american finds itself in a police state, unable to protest...

Let's consider a specific example:


The missile killed him, his teenage cousin and at least five other civilians on Oct. 14, 2011, while the boys were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant in southern Yemen...The attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said only that Abdulrahman was not “specifically targeted,” raising more questions than he answered.

The people killed in this attack were either killed by mistake, or because they were nearby someone considered a target, eating at a restaurant. Because the reasons for killing were secret, if the president decided to include some of his enemies or political enemies of allies in Yemen, made a mistake, or was given false information, it would never be known, because the list is secret. We don't know why or even who was targeted.

In war we accept assassinations, murder without trial, and mass murder, because people are fighting for survival. But even in war only enemy fighters should be targeted, and civilians should not. We have a whole list of rules of war which are being ignored, and this is not even a formal war - war has not been declared, uniforms are not worn, so the rules of war do not apply, but if they did, they are being broken.

We find ourselves in a very murky area where the US is at war with an undefined and secret enemy, who may be anywhere in the world, and lives amongst the civilian population. The reaction of the Obama administration has been to order assassinations from a secret list, also killing any civilians nearby. There is no trial, no charge, and no suspicion, just a decision to kill and an attack, wherever the target may be. This means the president and his advisers have arrogated the power to decide on life or death for anyone on the planet, without limitation in time or space, and without justification or warning, and also killing civilians nearby.

The implications of this are that this war will never end, the targets are everywhere, and the list of enemies will continue to expand in secret. Nobody is safe, because anyone might be standing next to someone on Obama's list at some point, and the general terror and hate instilled by these methods will continually generate new enemies. The Obama administration has adopted terror as a method of war - they have become what they set out to fight.

Its almost like the Obama administration are the real terrorists.

Good points except for...

> an undefined and secret enemy

Just this month alone...

- Islamic terrorists gun down over 60 people in a shopping mall in Kenya.

- Islamic terrorists blow up over 70 people in a church in Pakistan.

- Islamic terrorists massacre over 160 travelers in Nigeria.

- Islamic terrorists take hundreds hostage in a coastal city in the Philippines.

Islamic terrorists is not a defined enemy; many people are Islamic, and any of them could be terrorists. The list of who is considered a terrorist is secret and we are not privy to which people or even organisations are considered enemies in this war on terror. The US is also frequently attacked by Christian terrorists.

Terror aims to scare a population, but more importantly to drive a wedge between a government and its people by pushing the government into ever more repressive measures in an attempt to winnow out the terrorists, who can melt back into the population. The aim is precisely to force the government into ever more draconian measures which alienate the population and build support for the terrorists - to force the government to try to fight a war on the terrorists' terms. A great illustration of this from another era is the film The Battle of Algiers - torture, repression, removal of civil rights, and extra-judicial killing by the government in response are exactly what terrorism aims to achieve. Killing innocents in cafés is not the goal of terrorism, it's a means to an end, and that end is to force the government to adopt terror in response.

The correct response to terror attacks is careful police work to track down the killers and bring them to justice, so that they can't continue to plant bombs. This can be done within our existing legal frameworks.

The wrong response is to declare war on the the terrorists' terms, oppress your citizens, and kill yet more innocents in the cross fire as you target people on suspicion. Extra-judicial killing outside of war is as wrong as terror attacks, and as damaging for the parties involved, and eventually it comes to resemble terror itself.

Yup, it's been stated over and over by terrorist organizations that this is one of their intended goals. Thinking about where we were as a country around the time of the 1998 embassy bombings and where we are today would be jarring if I wasn't so desensitized to it.

It's not so much desensitization as media sanitization where images are pixelated, videos blurred, contextual information stripped from news reporting... leaving many in a soporific state.

If the true horrors of violence were shown without censorship, all day, every day in the news media, so nobody could escape facing the world as it is, I have faith the public would be so disgusted and so outraged that they would move heaven and earth to find a solution.


Watch and cry.

That still doesn't define who they are. Are you one of these terrorists? Am I?

It maybe helps justify the US' actions, but as far as "undefined and secret enemy" it is only one step further than saying "Who are we targeting? The... bad guys!"

"No matter how hard he digs at his memory, Winston is uncertain whether a time existed when Oceania was not at war with someone."



Wow, this guy got downvoted fast and unfairly in my opinion. He stated a fact.

I don't know what the Nigeria attack is, but in the three other attacks he listed the enemy is known and in two of those attacks they wore uniforms. Drones have been used against at least one of those groups.

I think people don't like the term "Islamic" being used, but they were done by groups claiming to be Islamic, and reported in the media as Islamic.

I am tired of the constant straw man arguments "but we have killed more people", "but christians are also terrorists" etc. Debate the issue at hand instead. Who are our enemy (if anyone) and how do we deal with them?

Replace the word "Islamic" with "Poor and Black/Brown" and you've selected the same group of people.

Imagine being in Northern Ireland 20 years ago and stating the fact that all of the terrorist attackers were performed by "Catholics". Or in the Deep South 40 years ago (or today) and saying that all of the people charged with stealing are "Black". Or that most of the people with AIDS are "Gay".

Unfortunately, the blanket targeting of a single group is really part of the problem. Pretending that it is tied to religion is just weakly hidden fear-of-the-other. The down-votes are just the quick-and-easy way to show that the community doesn't accept the cheap shot and sees it for what it really is.

> Pretending that it is tied to religion is just weakly hidden fear-of-the-other.

The killers are quoting from religious text and openly declare they are fighting a religious war.

If there were only one or two people doing this, you could claim they were mentally ill, but you have thousands of people doing this, all over the world.

You can't tar everybody with the same brush, but it's obvious that religion is part of the problem.

In order to be motivated enough to kill other people, you have to get your head into a pretty weird place. Religion is one path there. The religion that happens to dominate countries full of desperate people is... Islam.

I think Christians have a bigger body count than Muslims over the course of human history, primarily because the Europeans happen to be Christian. Hard to think of any religion that hasn't been used to justify a bunch of violence and murder. The violence by people quoting Islam today is mice nuts compared to (a) the crusades, (b) the protestant reformation, (c) the colonization of the new world.

You should really read Guns, Germs, and Steel before claiming that there is something special about this particular religion. Get a little sense of history. Islam in the 600s was amazingly progressive. Look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_inheritance_jurispruden....

why do you say islam is part of the problem? I ask because I genuinely don't understand...


>"Heavily armed insurgents laid siege on Benisheik, Kaga Local Government Area on Tuesday evening, killing people and setting buildings ablaze.

They also blocked the Maiduguri-Damaturu highway, three kilometers away from the town, sorting out and slaughtering dozens of travelers.

Apart from the 142 travellers, also killed in the attack were 2 soldiers, 3 policemen and 14 villagers,bringing the total death toll to 161."


>"an Islamic jihadist militant terrorist organisation based in the northeast of Nigeria[4] north Cameroon and Niger.[5][6][7][8] It is an Islamist movement which strongly opposes non-Sharia legal systems, and what they deem "Westernization." Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2001,[9] the organisation seeks to establish sharia law in the country."

Over it's 200+ year history the US has killed more civilians than that in the average week. Does that make us 4x as bad as Islamic terrorists?

No, because even if that were true you need to look at motivations and intent.

Genocide, imperialism, establishing delivery routes through foreign owned land, oil, and racism? The list goes on.

Killing is killing. Drone strikes hit incorrect and innocent targets ~90% (needs citation) of the time. Are you saying that's any better?

(needs citation)

You won't find one, given that it's not true.

Are you saying that's any better?

Are you actually asking if accidentally killing innocent people is better than routinely and intentionally killing innocent people, like this: http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2013%5C01%5C11...?

>You won't find one, given that it's not true.

Really? :) http://presstv.com/usdetail/189661.html

>Are you actually asking if accidentally killing innocent people is better than routinely and intentionally killing innocent people, like this:

An innocent person dead is an innocent person dead. Regardless of whether it's an accident or intentional its still wrong. 'Accidentally killing' hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of 'all that is good and great' is disgusting.

> as bad as

>> you need to look at motivations and intent

Sorry to wax philosophical, but that's only true if you're a Deontologist. I am not. :)

Thank you for the perfect excuse for any crime. We kill out of love, while they do it out of hate.

Islamic terrorists sent mail bombs to a bunch of scientists, bombed the Olympics in Atlanta, and destroyed that federal building in Oklahoma City, too, right?

Clearly not. But those were a while back. And the people who seem to be doing the most killing of civilians these days identify themselves as muslims.

Yes, I understand that most, perhaps very nearly all muslims don't want anything to do with these nut-jobs. However, if you're looking for the group of people most likely to be in to this kind of thing _right now_, then it seems that the nearest crazy-horse mosque might be the place to go. No, not the mosque around the corner from you right now [for most values of 'you'], but such places exist, and its right for law enforcement to investigate them.

Don't misunderstand me. Killing civilians with secret orders via remotely piloted drones, with no trial, no public investigation and no accountability is broken. Obama has certainly given me hope. Just as Bush did before him. I _hope_ that the next holder of office is a little more responsible.

But, there is a war. And I'd rather the liberal democracies won it. [hint - if the nut-jobs who attached the shopping mall in Nairobi had their way, my children and I would be executed in a flash]

Liberal democracies dont win when people are being killed without a trial. Government organizations that produce a visage of a liberal democracies win and they are two very different things.

You've picked out data points in the USA.

Check out what's going on in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines.

Step back and look at events around the world, you'll see a clear pattern.

What's going on in Burma is that the military dictatorship continues after half-assed elections and they are using narrow ethnic nationalism and Islamophobia to commit ethnic cleansing and burning whole villages and towns: http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/04/22/burma-end-ethnic-cleansin...

Narrow and blind hatred from other people lets them continue doing it. The number of people killed under the guard of the "new" Burma far exceeds the toll in Nairobi and Nigeria.

I don't know the global stats, but in Europe, 0.5% of terrorist attacks are committed by people who identify as Muslim. Christians and atheists commit way more.

Curious about the use of present tense. From the top of my mind:

Madrid - London subway - Beslan (not sure if that is Europe) -

All these are committed by people who claim to be Muslims aren't they?

On the other hand you have Oslo/Utøya which was committed by an atheist / agnostic.

Please don't misinterpret me: I have Muslim friends as well. I just want to stick to the facts. (and get my facts updated if necessary)

Wow, you remembered three! Well done! However, over 2000 terrorist attacks occurred in Europe in the last decade, so you'll need to remember more than three to attempt to show that most of them were muslim in origin/motivation. Here's a hint: You won't manage to find many more than ten.

Please update me. Either my google skills are failing me, or wikipedia and google is conspiring against me. Or I'm (too) lazy. Or something else.

He is not an atheist or agnostic, but a christian. He stated multiple times in his manifest that one of his main motive for the terrorist attack was defending christian values.

Yes, but not because he consider himself one but because he thinks these values are good for his country.

Doesn't make him right either way.

0.5% ? Really? Can you back that up with a reference please.

Sorry, my bookmark for the actual data is now a 404 :( It was from Interpol data, 2009 or 2010 I believe. Interestingly while searching for that data I stumbled across some for the USA: In the 1980 - 2005 period, 6% of terrorist attacks on American soil were carried out by Islamic extremists. 6%!

I would very eager to hear about terrorist acts committed by people who identify as atheist.

A B Breivik at least claimed not to be a personal believer in Christianity. Also his notes leave little doubt that he didn't practice Christianity. And he sure isn't a Muslim.

He doesnt identify as atheist per se and his statements on religion are ambiguous. He says, for example, that he prayed to God during attack. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anders_Behring_Breivik

I stand corrected. His statements are ambiguous.


I believe the first suicide bomb attacks were committed by Tamil Tigers.

... who were Hindus.

As an aside, they also carried out attacks against Tamil Muslims in areas they claimed as theirs (Tigers').

Erm, no. The Tamil Tigers were avowed atheists.

Here's one citation, you can probably find many others: http://preview.tinyurl.com/p6s9n9k

Counter argument:

- Catholics worldwide have, over decades, mistreated and abused hundreds and hundreds of children put in their care, scarring them for life

I am, of course, talking about the priests we heard about in the news. I wouldn't dare to generalize that their absolutely abysmal moral compass is indicative for the religion as such.

Just saying. Generalization is bad, mmkay.

Over one billion people are Islamic. That's about as unspecific as you can get.

Last I checked, none of those were America.

Let's kill each and evey (presumed) muslims then! Roughly one fifth of humanity.

BTW, are you a secret muslim?

And this justifies assassinations and executions without open and fair trials?

That sounds awkwardly a bit like the 1950s witch hunt and McCarthyism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Red_Scare)

In the US, laws against assassination and extrajudicial killing make no distinction between American citizens and others: Foreigners have the exact same protections as citizens. This goes for the Bill of Rights as well. (Aside, this explains why the NSA is only "supposed" to spy outside of the US. Wether the target is a citizen or not is technically irrelevant on this particular point)

If you accept that the US is in a war with Al Qaeda, then it is in no way surprising that the US government would then attempt to kill members of that organization. And, again, whether the members are American or not is quite literally irrelevant.

However, if the targeted individual is physically located within the US, then the US government is generally supposed to arrest them instead of assassinate them - and again this protects foreigners and US citizens alike.

> If you accept that the US is in a war with Al Qaeda

Not just Al Quaeda, as the article notes:

> the title itself: "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida or An Associated Force."

"An Associated Force." Don't forget, we're at war with “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces.”[1] Also,

> At a hearing in May, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department to provide him with a current list of Al Qaeda affiliates.

> The Pentagon responded – but Levin’s office told ProPublica they aren’t allowed to share it.

> “…we have classified the list,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Gregory.

> During the May hearing, Michael Sheehan, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, said he was “not sure there is a list per se.” Describing terrorist groups as “murky” and “shifting,” he said, “it would be difficult for the Congress to get involved in trying to track the designation of which are the affiliate forces” of Al Qaeda.

[1]: http://www.propublica.org/article/who-are-we-at-war-with-tha... (This was on HN about two months ago, see: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6117846 )

Lethal Operations, Extraordinary Rendition, Enhanced Interrogation. My God, It's all Newspeak. There should be a constitutional amendment or something mandating that laws should use well understood terms or if that is not possible, clearly define the term before using it.

This language allows these people to say "We're going to kill and torture people without having any proof that they're criminals and we don't have to tell you about it" while making it sound like and extra step of paperwork.

That doesn't line up with the Constitution, which clearly states what the US Government can do (I know, people commonly mistake the Constitution for a list of rights for the people rather than a list of exceptions for the government as to how they may or may not act).

The Constitution grants the right to due process for citizens. It doesn't place a limit on where that citizen is currently resided.

Killing someone in combat is one thing. The same as if you are forced into a firefight with someone as a police officer. Targeting and assassinating someone who is not immediately and directly threatening realistic harm is another - and that is what has happened, so far.

Stating "well, if they're outside the geographical boundaries of the country (or, not at least 100 miles in from the shores and borders of the US, apparently) then they're fair game" is absurd.

It's not just citizens.

  No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or 
  otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or 
  indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in 
  the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in 
  actual service in time of War or public danger; nor 
  shall any person be subject for the same offence to be 
  twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be 
  compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against 
  himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, 
  without due process of law; nor shall private property be 
  taken for public use, without just compensation.

Okay, let's agree with your premise. Then why is it only absurd in the case of US citizens? After all, the constitution unequivocally applies to everyone in the US. Even me!

So why should the fact that somebody is far away change any of that?

I think you're missing the main point:

> the memo isn't justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that. The distinction between (a) government accusations and (b) proof of guilt is central to every free society, by definition, yet this memo - and those who defend Obama's assassination power - willfully ignore it.

No, he is not missing the main point. Rather, he is addressing part of the issue. All his post says is that it does not--and should not--matter whether the person in question is an American citizen. This is a fact which stands regardless of your opinion on the rest of the problem, and so it makes sense not to address that.

In more explicit terms: if you believe this sort of extrajudicial killing is illegal (which many, including me, do), you should believe it illegal for citizens and non-citizens alike. Similarly, if you believe it legal, it should still be legal for both citizen and non-citizens.

Not having citizenship does not magically make it fine to kill you and, similarly, having citizenship does not protect you if you are an enemy combatant.

Since the same logic applies in both cases, it's completely independent of the rest of the issue and should not be unnecessarily conflated.

As I see it, there are two issues here:

(a) an person is declared a terrorist in secret by a bunch of secret govt folks, basis which he or she is 'approved' for assassination by the US state,

(b) the person may or may not be a US citizen, though the former confers significantly better chances of not being assassinated.

While not disagreeing with the import of your argument, namely that "citizens and non-citizens" ought to be treated alike (it is a welcome change to hear that, because in the post Snowden era we are witnessing a clear difference in the rights of US citizens and maybe those of their 'Five Eyes' allies versus the rest of the world), I don't think its something that can ever be expected in any country. Compared to their own citizens, most countries will always place lower value on the lives of foreigners. By extension there will be a lower bar on their assassinations too.

So instead, its better to challenge the secrecy that surrounds how a person is classified as a terrorist, instead of hoping the US govt starts treating everyone in the world with the same consideration.

what i don't get is why the classification of terrorists must remain secret. I'd like to apply the logic of "if you aint got nothing to hide..." to these sorts of things, and see how they respond.

> Having citizenship does not protect you if you are an enemy combatant.

Actually in that case you loose your citizenship:

Although a person's enlistment in the armed forces of a foreign country may not constitute a violation of U.S. law, it [may cause] loss of U.S. nationality if an American voluntarily and with the intention of relinquishing U.S. citizenship enters or serves in foreign armed forces engaged in hostilities against the United States or serves in the armed forces of any foreign country as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer.


> with the intention of relinquishing U.S. citizenship

Note well this. And it's not just a statute, it's controlling Supreme Court precedent. That's actually why the language that gets used is so consistently weird -- old laws have basically had "with the intention of relinquishing U.S. citizenship" forced into them by case law.

For a citizen to wage war against the United States is treason, but not even treason is punished by loss of citizenship. You could steal Putin's job and launch Russia's nukes at the US, and you'd still have your citizenship so long as you did not intend to relinquish it.


If you accept that the US is in a war with Al Qaeda, then it is in no way surprising that the US government would then attempt to kill members of that organization. And, again, whether the members are American or not is quite literally irrelevant.

Yeah, this is a powerful argument actually. Much as I'd love to argue the president is over-stepping his bounds here, I can see that if the fiction that a struggle against the entity "terror" is the fundamental equivalent of the real, shooting war with Germany, then everything else does follow. If a few rapscallions hatching plots in Yeman are fundamentally, essentially equivalent to an entire column of tanks engaged in a pitch battle with the army, well then it is logical, in the garbage-in, garbage-out form of logical, for the US army to just blow them away.

Shows just how pernicious these metaphors can be.

If you accept that the US is in a war with Al Qaeda

And if you no longer accept this as a valid justification for all of the actions that have followed the 9/11 attack?

Then you should take the position that assassinating Al Quaeda members is wrong (and illegal). Regardless of citizenship.

Which is entirely consistent with the parent's post.

True, but who deems and verifies if someone is a member of an enemy force? In traditional war, a soldier would have a uniform, and there are laws against killing non-uniformed peeps. In asymmetrical warfare, it's obviously much harder to ID legitimate targets. The problem isn't whether or not the government should be killing known enemies of the state, it's that the executive branch is unilaterally deciding and confirming who is an enemy of the state.

The worst case scenario message being sent is that if I or a fellow American steps outside our land, the executive can decide to blow us away, based on evidence they provide. Judge, jury, and executioner. Literally. But it doesn't really matter if the executive provides a photo of an American holding an AK-47, a court needs to decide if the citizen is a traitor or not (and i'm giving them the benefit of the doubt that they'd provide at least that much evidence, which ,actually, legally, I would think still isn't much).

US civilian courts have no jurisdiction outside of US borders, and again, why would such a requirement need to be met for US citizens but not foreigners? Everyone is afforded the same rights (equality under the law).

In a war, there is no legal need to justify killings in front of a judge.

This is all just legally speaking, however. Practically, I think that Obama would be very wise to seek approval from a panel of judges for all authorizations, regardless of whom is targeted. Unlike in traditional wars, the US government is very specifically going after certain individuals. It would seem prudent for the actors involved to seek the legitimacy granted by a panel of judges. But I would still say that the law does not require it.

In a traditional war, legality has already been met via law (either through a formal declaration of war or through the limited war powers given to the executive). There is no need to justify in front of a judge, because the rights have already been granted. But again, you can only kill certain people, also defined by law. You can't just start carpet bombing cities anymore, otherwise, yes, you may very well find yourself in front of a judge (and presumably these cities would consist of foreigners, so yes, there would be a requirement).

US courts may not have jurisdiction abroad, but the executor of actions is presumably or will presumably be on American soil at some point.

well, tax laws make distinction between non-Americans and Americans outside of the US. One can see how following the similar reasoning criminal law (or whatever law is the basis for extrajudicial killings (sorry for the oxymoron)) can make similar distinction.

The other day several american muslims strapped a bomb onto themselves and killed themselves and many innocent people in a suicide attack in Kenya.

If there were actual legal mechanisms built into the US constitution or laws created that dealt with fighting an asymmetrical war with people like this then I really doubt the President would go through this process, but that's not the case.

I'm not really sure how we should handle this but this isn't some evil plan to grab more power by the Obama administration, it's an ad hoc solution to a really difficult problem.

In yearly global death count, terrorism accounts for around 10,000. That would not be a big deal even if all those deaths were in the US (and not scattered over the globe, and mostly in places of high civil unrest). I'm not saying 10,000 deaths isn't sad, but in 2011 a whopping 597,689 Americans died of heart disease. Yet, there aren't secret government enforced exercise camps, are there? There aren't secret courts that shut down McDonalds restaurants without trial, are there? It doesn't matter whether this is an evil plan to grab power by Obama or not. It gives a huge amount of power to the President. If you don't fight it now, that power will never be given back. Each successful president will enjoy the ability to kill of anyone they feel like in secret. Add to that the complicit news organisations, sweeping domestic spying programs and the secret prisons, and you have everything in place for a coup. All it takes now is for the wrong guy to get elected.

i agree - power needs checks and balances.

This scenario reminds me of the bourne movies, in which the CIA authorizes assasinations just like this.

It's not really a solution of any kind if it creates problems vastly bigger and more terrifying that the ones it purports to solve. It's kind of like killing a fly on a window by throwing a hand grenade at it.

But the majority of people think it's an acceptable solution for the time being. If they weren't, then there would be a political shitstorm. And there really isn't - because nobody can give a better solution than letting those people just go free and do as they please.

From my experience, the majority of people actually terrified of this are people on the internet. A lot of people are uneasy with it, but only on the internet are people terrified. The government isn't going to go around killing anyone it dislikes willy-nilly.

Maybe, maybe not. But murdering people isn't the only awful thing a government can do. If it feels it can get away with this it'll think it can get away with anything.

There's a big difference between killing someone suspected of being a terrorist, and indiscriminately gunning down a bunch of people. The latter is undeniably "murder", but the former, not so much. It's not ideal, but IMO it's not an atrocity.

I guess it all comes down which version of justice you favor: the one prescribed by law or the general consensus for what is acceptable.

Actually, there's no difference at all when one involves the other. (See drone strikes / collateral damage / Hellfire missiles / Yemen).

Also, killing people posing no immediate threat to the lives of others and with no due process is, almost by definition, an act of murder. Not war, murder.

Killing of a suspect is not an atrocity. Nice.

Congrats on being a voice of reason. Like anything, this has upsides & downsides, and it doesn't help anyone to completely ignore one side.

Upsides: At least for the moment, they appear to be targeting people who are genuine threats to many other people.

Downsides: It can be a slippery slope, and how can people be sure such power isn't being abused?

Perhaps one way to mitigate the downsides might be for the agencies involved to be extremely transparent about each case, releasing everything that led them to the decision that they took.

"It can be a slippery slope".

(A) Killing your own citizens with (B) secret laws / justifications using (C) zero / secret "evidence" and (D) No oversight by a group outside of those who are ordering the killings can be a slippery slope?

That is not the slippery slope, that is the ditch at the bottom once you have slid all the way down.

If those people were plotting to kill hundreds/thousands of your more innocent citizens, then you could do a lot worse. The problem is where you draw the line.

In legal terms (and I use that loosely) they have already decided that they have that right, so in that sense we have already reached the bottom.

Now, implementation wise you are correct in that things could be worse. However in the "We are the government and we can do this" sense...ditch.

(It must be said that the nice thing about the large-scale implementation problem is that the US population would rise up against that, but that is small comfort for the victims in the "small enough that 'Joe Average' doesn't care about it" death-list.)

If those people were plotting to kill hundreds/thousands of your more innocent citizens

And if they weren't?

Yeah, that's one of the problems. You'd hope the agencies involved are only taking these actions where they have extreme certainty. And even if they do have that super-high certainty, it still is an execution without a trial, which makes a lot of people uneasy. Utmost transparency (probably has to be after-the-fact) into each case where this is done might help to put some people a little bit more at-ease about it. In cases where they get it wrong due to negligence, you might hope to see prosecutions as a result of the transparency.

It feels like this is one of those polarizing issues where each side is too scared to admit advantages of a different point of view in case they lose some ground. Everyone takes an extreme view for/against, the debate doesn't address the finer points of reality, and no one changes their mind or comes to more reasonable compromises.

Yeah, that's one of the problems. You'd hope the agencies involved are only taking these actions where they have extreme certainty.

The problem with this is that it requires us to trust our intelligence agencies, but they have shown themselves to be duplicitous, quite willing to lie to congress under oath, and unworthy of trust. Even by their own admission they have not been taking these actions when they have extreme certainty - people are killed who are "not specifically targeted".

There is no way to make assassination without trial by the executive transparent and accountable - that's why we have a court system and independent judiciary, and a whole host of laws protecting the accused. Subverting that entire legal system is very dangerous and we shouldn't allow it, because if we do, there is no legal impediment to stop laws used for terrorists being turned against others who oppose the state.

Your argument to moderation is one of the classical fallacies. Maybe there are no reasonable compromises and one of the extreme views is correct.

Well, assuming there is a "correct" view. I can't see what it would be. Nothing will be perfect. My primary point is that the merits of each approach should be acknowledged. Anyone who claims that all of the merits are at one extreme is deliberately lying or blinded by their extremism.

I don't know of any case where they specifically targeted people they thought were innocent. Can you provide anything to support that claim?

From http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/18/opinion/the-drone-that-kil... : "The missile killed him, his teenage cousin and at least five other civilians on Oct. 14, 2011, while the boys were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant in southern Yemen...The attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said only that Abdulrahman was not “specifically targeted,” raising more questions than he answered."

I don't know if it is common for u.s. army to kill people without targeting them but if it is the case they should better learn how to aim.

Almost every drone strike kills several people - usually only one of those people is the intended target. In many cases (including the one linked) they have admitted that the people killed were not the target. Not as an apology (those are rare, they don't feel the need to admit mistakes because of course the missions and targets are secret), but simply to say that those people were not the intended target, just collateral damage. Here's another well-known example of firing on a crowd:


By the time you're firing missiles at a restaurant, you have accepted that as long as your target is killed, some innocents will die with them. Any civilians, waiters, passers by etc who are caught in the blast are clearly just the cost of doing business. The attacks don't happen in a war zone or under cover of war, except the eternal and ill-specified 'war on terror'. If you want to argue that is not specifically targeting innocent people I'd respond that they are indiscriminately targeting innocent people in the hope of hitting their targets, which is worse.

It's remarkable to me that people still try to defend these attacks - if missiles were used on targets in a town on the US, killing several bystanders, there would be outrage, and rightly so. For the civilians on the ground, it is equivalent to suicide bombers taking out a crowd, some of whom are off-duty troops - the two acts have very similar consequences.

who's going to draw the line for the USA? This shit is 100000% hypocrite, what the FUCK would happen if any other country had killed so many innocents as the US do all the fucking time with it's stupid hypocrite bullshit everywhere?

Nothing fucking happens, just look at the data of how many innocent people including children drone strikes have taken. Why doesn't this have any weight in anything? Oh, I know, all the flashlight is always just pointed at any nutter in your country that managed to get a 3 to 5 bodycount or wathever and spin the shit out of this mess as to justify what you do. No wonder there's people plotting against you.

A huge donwside is that it creates 10 potential terrorists seeking revenge for every suppressed potential threat.

That's a good point, it might do that. (haven't seen evidence, but it does sound plausible)

And the response, of course, would be to kill those, and also the new ones that arise out of these killings. Until, the population is subdued. Or, when the number gets to be big enough, we declare a war, and the pwn the country.

CIA analyst on al-Qaeda: "They hate us for what we do, not who we are."

What bothers me most about what the government has been doing lately (for the past decade or so), is that they seem to have total disregard for the spirit of the law. All they do nowadays is try to find legal loopholes and mind-bending justifications for doing anything they want and pretending that anything is fair game and in the "legal limits".

I'm not sure what even the Courts can do against this, because this trend from the government and authorities is so overwhelming and they're doing it so much, that the Courts would really be fighting a very tough uphill battle, while the government gets away with so many things they pretend are "legal" for many years.

Feels like some sort of line has been crossed.

It was called the magna carta.

What can a non-US citizen do? What can a US citizen do?

I don't mean this in a sarcastic or confrontational manner at all, but it is a genuine enquiry - other than raising awareness of such issues to the voting public and donating to foundations such as the EFF - what more can an average Joe do to prevent / reel back these reaches and abuses of power?

It's legal when WE do it - The Government

More relevantly:

"When the president does something -- that means it is not illegal." -- Richard M. Nixon

Nixon would be freaking out over what politicians get away with today and never have to resign. In fact their successors simply up-the-ante.

Remember how hated Bush's lawyers were? Now we know why Obama didn't prosecute any of them.

The next Nixon will bring a reign of terror down on the US (regardless of which party he comes from), using the laws that Clinton, Bush and Obama and others have passed.

How to respond to this kind of argument: We don't need to give "due process" to enemy soldiers before we kill them. How are al-Qaeda members different?

Actual soldiers are acknowledging their participation by wearing uniforms. Al-Quaeda members are not doing this, so they more or less force the US to use equally shoddy tactics. I think that this is very dangerous, the terrorists are winning in the sense that they are dragging the US down to their level and thereby subverting democratic principles. The question is how you can do anything about it.

I think the difference is that these targets aren't Al-Qaeda members. They are people accused, with no oversight, of being Al-Qaeda members. So you have to trust the targeting decisions of just the president and his aides, rather than those people plus judges in the judicial branch. Whereas in a normal war, it is easier to justify who the enemy soldiers are, since they are in uniform or shooting at you.

I can't believe no one looks at Guantanomo Bay and giving free reign to secretly killed supposedly accused people of crimes may/may not have committed without any recourse.

I think many here anyway can agree that Guantanomo Bay needs to be shutdown, but obviously won't be. What if later down the line we need to decide that the power has gotten out of control(if it hasn't already) and needs to be shut down. But can't because the terrorists win.

Your question itself falls victim to one of the biggest fallacies highlighted by this article: that is, you accept that government accusation (e.g. that someone is an al-Qaeda member) is tantamount to guilt.

Establishing the truth of such an accusation is the very objective of due process. Thus, your question is internally inconsistent and circular. It literally cannot be answered.

Right. So the difference is the "killable" status of suspected Al-Qaeda members must be established by due process, but for enemy soldiers the "due process" is simply the identification of their uniform.

Then what is the effective and ethical way of waging war against non-uniformed enemy? Arrest everyone then try them? What if it's not practical to do that?

We don't need to give "due process" to enemy soldiers before we kill them. How are al-Qaeda members different?

If you're at war, you should only target enemy fighters in uniform, not civilians, and try to minimise civilian casualties at all times.

If you're not at war, people should be tried in open court and found guilty of crimes if they have committed them, not assassinated on suspicion, along with civilians nearby.

If you're proclaiming total war against anyone who is on a secret list, and leaving the power to decide in the hands of Obama, you are proclaiming the US a dictatorship where life and death rests in the hands of one man, and there is no recourse to justice before or after the killing. In the wrong hands and combined with total information awareness this would be a terrible power.

If the enemy refuses to wear a uniform? Do we just let them go?

> If the enemy refuses to wear a uniform? Do we just let them go?

The British policy on this, under which I grew up, was to treat such a scenario as a 'police action' wherein military presence was used to bring the situation to a point where the police could intervene.

Certainly troops operated checkpoints, patrolled streets and operated intelligence gathering, but all actions were in assistance to the constabulary. The ROE for line soldiers were extremely strict and even firing in self-defence was not automatically assured. A soldier could pin a suspect on the pavement but only a police officer could arrest him.

And if the terrorists are in a country which does not want to launch military action against the bad actors within their borders?

Then either you go to war - actual, declared war - with that country, or you put up with it.

So what do you think if US wages war against Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Lybia, at the same time?

As a US citizen, do you approve of that? How about the US public?

Ok, I was simplifying; diplomatic sanctions are an option, and, I think, the appropriate way to handle the case of "this country is generally ok apart from harbouring some international criminals.

If the enemy refuses to wear a uniform, and blends in with the civilian population, are we at war at all?

Terrorism is very difficult to counter, but I'd argue the way to do so is not to accept battle on the terrorists' terms - war amongst the people does not tend to end well for the government responsible.

Yes, this is bad, as everybody has a right to a fair trial.

However, I think it is _far_ worse that it is EVER, in any way, shape or form, deemed acceptable that innocent bystanders get killed in order to get rid of a single individual, no matter how horrible their acts may have been.

It is frankly appalling that people get all upset about the fact that the target in question was a US citizen, and blatantly ignore the addition that "at least five other civilians" were killed in the same attack.

They are so fond of telling us, "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear."

What does Obama fear?

It's funny how they used "US citizens" instead of "people".

> (2) capture is infeasible

I am not sure how they can even justify how any capture can be infeasible. Since, the US clearly found capturing Osama Bin Laden to be feasible even within an allied country.

And he got a Nobel price... it sounds like an terrible joke.

The sad fact is that 99% of people just don't understand the concept of 'rule of law.' They think it means 'rule of the law man.'

"A government is a body of people, usually notably ungoverned." - Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly

Funny thing Hail to the King started to play while I was reading this article.

Heil Obama!

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