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Terror Tuesday: Killer drones get attention as Obama gets his man

It’s been a very good week for Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

His March 6th filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA was ‘historic’ on a number of fronts.

It succeeded in dragging the word “no” out of Attorney General Holder, in response to Sen. Paul’s question as to whether the president has the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not "engaged in combat" on US soil.

It was notable for its educational content, and for forcing information that has largely been downplayed by the mainstream media onto the front pages. Suddenly killer drones were hot news. The Washington Post obliged by feeding the newly awakened public appetite with “everything you need to know about the drone debate.”

It won the Obama Administration a host of new defenders, including Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, torture memo author John Yoo and Andrew McCarthy, a former prosecutor and writer for the National Review who once declared that the Obama Administration was being controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was bipartisan – at one point, Ron Wyden (D-OR) took the floor and described working with Sen. Paul to try to get the Administration to be more forthcoming about its rules for the drone strikes.

It was the first time ever that supportive tweets were read during a filibuster.

Paul’s 13-hour verbal marathon was the climax of a Congressional effort – which included at least 21 direct requests – to extract the legal memos justifying the killer drone program from the Obama Administration. The result? Grudging but carefully controlled access for a handful of Members to four of the 11 memos and an explanation of sorts of the process that led to Anwar Al Awlaki’s execution in the pages of The New York Times.

To get out its version of events, the Administration (once again) leaked to its newspaper of choice. The long largely unsourced article, “A US Citizen, in America’s Cross Hairs: How the Government Came to Kill Awlaki, Without a Trial,” describes two DOJ Office of Legal Counsel lawyers, David Barron and Martin Lederman, feverishly searching for a legal justification for putting Awlaki on the kill list.

According to Times, the lawyers’ Eureka! moment arrived when they come across an obscure 1997 district court decision. It allows them to craft a way around the overseas-murder portion of the 1994 crime bill which states that it is a crime for a “national of the US to kill or attempt to kill a national of the US while such a national is outside the country” – with no exception made when the Decider is president.

Was an American teenager on the kill list? No, according to journalists Mazzetti, Savage and Shane. Instead, it was the hunt for Egyptian Qaeda operative Ibrahim al-Banna that led to the incineration of Awlaki’s teenage son. The journalists flatly assert that “the intelligence was bad: Mr. Banna was not there, and among a dozen men killed was the young Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had no connection to terrorism and would never have been deliberately targeted.”

We are asked to take on trust that it was a “tragic error.” There is no discussion here of other “tragic errors” or the nature of “signature strikes” targeting men who look to be of military age and might just be up to something the US doesn’t like.

If the White House thinks that these “new details of the legal, intelligence and military challenges faced by the Obama administration” will pre-empt further demands for transparency, it is almost certainly wrong. The New York Times piece and its description of the Barron-Lederman legal analysis have been skewered by Glenn Greenwald, the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights and Marcy Wheeler of emptywheel, among others.

For Senator Paul, “my filibuster was just the beginning.” It raised his public profile overnight and has positioned him to make potentially powerful political moves.

Will it mark the beginning of the end of secret law? Former CIA agent John Kiriakou would probably say no.

In February, shortly before going to prison after leaking information about torture in CIA black sites, Kiriakou pointed out that “most people don’t realize this but President Obama has surrounded himself with the same Intelligence advisors who advised President Bush. Through most of the first term, the CIA had the same deputy director that Bush had, the same director of operations that Bush had. John Brennan,…was under President Bush the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center and up to his eyeballs in torture policy. So even if we changed presidents, there was no real change of Intelligence advisors, at least not on counter-terrorism.”

When asked from his personal knowledge of Brennan what kind of CIA head he would make, Kiriakou replied:

“He’s going to be somebody who is extremely aggressive. And who will probably be walking on the edge of the law.”

If this proves to be the case, will the public care? Four years ago Brennan was so tarnished by his association with the CIA’s torture regime that he was forced to withdrew his name from consideration to be its director. This time around, there was only a cursory examination of his association with the CIA’s rendition and interrogation practices.

In the words of The New York Times,

It’s not just the vague idea of torture that seems more acceptable now. Specific techniques garner more support, too. In a 2005 USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, 16 percent said that waterboarding was right, 82 percent thought it was wrong. In the YouGov poll, 25 percent said it’s right, and just 55 percent thought it was wrong. Support for naked chaining in cold rooms jumped from 18 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2012 while opposition plummeted from 79 percent to 51 percent, a drop of 28 points. Americans also favored threatening prisoners with dogs and religious humiliation in larger numbers while the percent opposing those techniques dropped dramatically.

Americans seem increasingly indifferent to the drip feed of information – assuming it even reaches them – about the CIA-led “international conspiracy of crime,” to use the term employed by UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson.

The recent report in the UK Guardian that a notorious veteran of the US “dirty wars” in Central America has been implicated in a secret interrogation system in Iraq that used torture to quell the Sunni insurgency, and that formerly revered General Petraeus was very much in the loop, has scarcely got a mention in the US mainstream media.

Such signs of national conscience–fatigue may mean that Brennan will not face sustained pressure to release the reportedly damning 6,000 page Intelligence Committee document detailing CIA crimes and abuses.

Not only did Brennan get a pass on torture this time around. He also appears to have the public on his side on drone strikes – as long as the targets are not Americans at home and as long as the President is not judge, jury and executioner as far as US citizens are concerned.

Check out the results of this Fox News poll conducted on February 25-27, 2013:

• "Now I'm going to read you a series of ways in which the United States might use deadly force against suspected terrorists. For each one, please tell me if you approve or disapprove. Do you approve or disapprove of the United States using unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country?"

Approve 74% Disapprove 22% Unsure 4%


• "Do you approve or disapprove of the United States using unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country if the suspect is a U.S. citizen?"

Approve 60% Disapprove 36% Unsure 5%


• "Do you approve or disapprove of the United States using unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected foreign terrorist on U.S. soil?”

Approve 59% Disapprove 40% Unsure 4%


• "Do you approve or disapprove of the United States using unmanned aircraft called drones to kill a suspected terrorist who is a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?"

Approve 45% Disapprove 50% Unsure 5%


• "Do you think the president of the United States, on his own, should be able to authorize the use of deadly force, such as a drone strike, to kill a suspected terrorist who is a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?"

Approve 32% Disapprove 63% Unsure 5%


Responses to the last two questions suggest that Senator Paul had the winds of public opinion behind him when he narrowed his focus to drone strikes sanctioned by the president against US citizens on US soil.

What will it take to convince Americans that people in faraway Forever War hunting grounds are human beings too?

The filmmaker Robert Greenwald is hoping that photos of children killed in drone strikes may awaken this country to the true cost of an “immoral policy” that is in fact making Americans less safe. Watch out for his forthcoming documentary, “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars.”

The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is endeavoring to unearth and publicize the names of the thousands killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, including the scores of children.

Set against attempts to expose the human cost of drone strikes, rendition and torture is an Administration that is increasingly hunkering down behind claims that ‘national security’ requires the utmost secrecy, despite the lip service it gives to the word ‘transparency.’

An Associated Press investigation found that “the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama’s first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.”

In the words of the ACLU’s Alexander Abdo, “We’ve seen a meteoric rise in the number of claims to protect secret law, the government’s interpretations of laws or its understanding of its own authority. In some ways, the Obama administration is actually even more aggressive on secrecy than the Bush administration.”

We as a people clearly have a whole lot of reckoning to do — including with the kind of government we have enabled and the kind of society we have become. It is a reckoning the Obama Administration seems determined to thwart.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.