Preface: If this is too intense for you, look at this instead.
Glenn Greenwald has two must-read posts on the reason that virtually everyone the U.S. kills is called a “militant” or “suspected militant”.
He wrote Monday:
Virtually every time the U.S. fires a missile from a drone and ends the lives of Muslims, American media outlets dutifully trumpet in headlines that the dead were ”militants” – even though those media outlets literally do not have the slightest idea of who was actually killed. They simply cite always-unnamed “officials” claiming that the dead were “militants.” It’s the most obvious and inexcusable form of rank propaganda: media outlets continuously propagating a vital claim without having the slightest idea if it’s true.
This practice continues even though key Obama officials have been caught lying, a term used advisedly, about how many civilians they’re killing. I’ve written and said many times before that in American media discourse, the definition of “militant” is any human being whose life is extinguished when an American missile or bomb detonates (that term was even used when Anwar Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman, was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen two weeks after a drone killed his father, even though nobody claims the teenager was anything but completely innocent: “Another U.S. Drone Strike Kills Militants in Yemen”).
This morning, the New York Times has a very lengthy and detailed article about President Obama’s counter-Terrorism policies based on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers.” I’m writing separately about the numerous revelations contained in that article, but want specifically to highlight this one vital passage about how the Obama administration determines who is a “militant.” The article explains that Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on avoiding civilian deaths “did not significantly change” the drone program, because Obama himself simply expanded the definition of a “militant” to ensure that it includes virtually everyone killed by his drone strikes. Just read this remarkable passage:
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.
Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.
This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.
But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.
“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
The next day, Greenwald noted:
In 2006, the pro-Israel activist Alan Dershowitz created a serious scandal when he argued – mostly in order to justify Israeli aggression — that “civilian causalties” are a “gray area” because many people in close proximity to Terrorists — even if not Terrorists themselves — are less than innocent (“A new phrase should be introduced into the reporting and analysis of current events in the Middle East: ‘the continuum of civilianality’ . . . . Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others”).
Even more repellent was John Podhoretz’s argument in 2006 that “the tactical mistake” which “we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything,” specifically that the real error was that the U.S. permitted “the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35.” In other words, “all military-age males” in Sunni areas should have been deemed “combatants” and thus killed. Podhoretz’s argument created all sorts of outrage in progressive circles: John Podhoretz is advocating genocide!
But this is precisely the premise that President Obama himself has now adopted in order to justify civilian deaths and re-classify them as “militants.” Here is the rationale of Obama officials as described by the NYT: “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Probably up to no good. That’s a direct replica of Dershowitz’s argument, and is closely related to Podhoretz’s. They count someone as a “militant” — worthy of death — based purely on the happenstance of where they are and the proximity they’re in to someone else they suspect is a Bad Person. If such a person is killed by a U.S. missile, then, by definition, they are “militants,” not “civilians” — even if we don’t know the first thing about them, including their name.
Will This Policy Apply to Americans On U.S. Soil?
This may sound like something far away which won’t directly affect Americans.
But the military now considers the U.S. homeland to be a battlefield. As we noted in March:
Fox News reports:
FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday said he would have to go back and check with the Department of Justice whether Attorney General Eric Holder’s “[criteria] for the targeted killing of Americans also applied to Americans inside the U.S.
“I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not,” Mueller said when asked by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., about a distinction between domestic and foreign targeting
Graves followed up asking whether “from a historical perspective,” the federal government has “the ability to kill a U.S. citizen on United States soil or just overseas.”
“I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice,” Mueller replied.
Indeed, Holder’s Monday speech at Northwestern University seemed to leave the door open.
Constitutional expert Jonathan Turley writes:
One would hope that the FBI Director would have a handle on a few details guiding his responsibilities, including whether he can kill citizens without a charge or court order.
He appeared unclear whether he had the power under the Obama Kill Doctrine or, in the very least, was unwilling to discuss that power. For civil libertarians, the answer should be easy: “Of course, I do not have that power under the Constitution.”
The claim that they are following self-imposed “limits” which are meaningless — particularly in a system that is premised on the availability of judicial review. The Administration has never said that the [Law Of Armed Conflicts] does not allow the same powers to be used in the United States. It would be an easy thing to state. Holder can affirmatively state that the President’s inherent power to kill citizens exists only outside of the country. He can then explain where those limits are found in the Constitution and why they do not apply equally to a citizen in London or Berlin. Holder was not describing a constitutional process of review. They have dressed up a self-imposed review of a unilateral power as due process. Any authoritarian measure can be dressed up as carefully executed according to balancing tests, but that does not constitute any real constitutional analysis. It is at best a loose analogy to constitutional analysis.
When reporters asked the Justice Department about Mueller’s apparent uncertainty, they responded that the answer is “pretty straightforward.” They then offered an evasive response. They simply said (as we all know) that “[t]he legal framework (Holder) laid out applies to U.S. citizens outside of U.S.” We got that from the use of the word “abroad.” However, the question is how this inherent authority is limited as it has been articulated by Holder and others. What is the limiting principle? If the President cannot order the killing of a citizen in the United States, Holder can simply say so (and inform the FBI Director who would likely be involved in such a killing). In doing so, he can then explain the source of that limitation and why it does not apply with citizens in places like London. What we have is a purely internal review that balances the practicality of arrest and the urgency of the matter in the view of the President. Since the panel is the extension of his authority, he can presumably disregard their recommendations or order a killing without their approval. Since the Administration has emphasized that the “battlefield” in this “war on terror” is not limited to a particular country, the assumption is that the President’s authority is commensurate with that threat or limitless theater of operation. Indeed, the Justice Department has repeatedly stated that the war is being fought in the United States as well as other nations.
Thus, Mueller’s uncertainty is understandable . . . and dangerous. The Framers created a system of objective due process in a system of checks and balances. Obama has introduced an undefined and self-imposed system of review ….
Before you assume that Mueller’s comments are being blown out of proportion, remember that it has been clear for some time that Obama has claimed the power to assassinate U.S. citizens within the U.S. As we pointed out in December:
I’ve previously noted that Obama says that he can assassinate American citizens living on U.S. soil.
This admittedly sounds over-the-top. But one of the nation’s top constitutional and military law experts – Jonathan Turley – agrees.
Turley said [on C-Span]:
President Obama has just stated a policy that he can have any American citizen killed without any charge, without any review, except his own. If he’s satisfied that you are a terrorist, he says that he can kill you anywhere in the world including in the United States.
Two of his aides just … reaffirmed they believe that American citizens can be killed on the order of the President anywhere including the United States.
You’ve now got a president who says that he can kill you on his own discretion. He can jail you indefinitely on his own discretion
Remember, government officials have said that Americans can be targets in the war on terror.
And Northwestern University’s law school professor Joseph Margulies said:
Obama and Bush … both say we are in a war not confined to particular battlefield. … Both say we can target citizens without judicial oversight and that can happen anywhere in the world.
Remember, the Department of Justice attorney who wrote the memo "justifying" torture - John Yoo - also recently said that drones could be used against Americans living on U.S. soil in time of war:
Of course, America has been in a continuous declared state of national emergency since 9/11, and we are in a literally never-ending state of perpetual war. See this, this, this and this.
And the government has basically announced that it can label any American citizen a terrorist for no reason whatsoever.
So if a military-age man is killed in a U.S. city because he happens – even unknowingly – to be near a suspected bad guy, will the report simply read “another militant killed”?