On Monday The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit finally released a 2011 memo, which gives the Obama administration’s justification for the killing of American citizens in drone strikes. The Obama Administration has been facing increased pressure to respond to claims that the White House acted indiscriminately when authorizing drone strikes.
Last year President Obama acknowledged that four U.S. citizens had been killed in drone strikes in Yemen, including Anwar al-Awlaki who was identified as the head of al-Qaeda operations on the Arabian peninsula. Awlaki’s 16-year old son was also killed in this 2011 attack.
The memo, which specifically deals with the case of al-Awlaki, states that the leader continued to pose an imminent threat to the United States, essential comparing the use of lethal force by the United States government to the use of deadly force by a police officer who finds himself in immediate danger.
The release of this memo comes after an April 21 court ruling that the White House was obligated under a Freedom of Information Act request to make public use of drones to kill American citizens. “For the record,” Obama said in 2013 speech updating his administration’s drone policy, “I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process, nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.”
In the United States, the justified use of targeted killings has been laid out in the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, a joint resolution passed by Congress immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This legislation gives the president the power to take “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on 11 September 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down in 2012, President Obama gave the military and CIA permission to conduct drone strikes based solely on intelligence “signatures,” which are loosely recognized patterns of behavior that suggest terrorist involvement. Prior to this policy shift, targeted killings could only be carried out against known terrorist leaders.
In May of 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder published a letter in response to requests from Senator Patrick Leahey for more information on the justification of targeted killings, as it applies to American Citizens. Holder wrote that Americans could be targeted “in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qa’ida or its associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, in the following circumstances: (1) the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is not feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.”
According to a report from the New America Foundation, the use of drone strikes have dramatically increased under President Obama. In 2008, during the last year of George Bush’s presidency, there were 34 drone strikes. Between January and October of 2009, when Obama first took office there were 43. By that time the CIA claimed that they had killed over half of the suspects on their most wanted al-Qaeda list using drones.
Since 2008, there have been increased international concerns that drone strikes were killing a high number of civilians compared to actual terrorist operatives. The CIA claims that in the period between October 2009 and May of 2010, they killed 500 militants in Pakistani tribal areas, and through these drone strikes only 30 civilians were killed. However a Brookings Institute report from the same time claimed that 10 civilians were killed for every single terrorist killed in a drone strike.
The below chart from the New America Foundation shows the average estimate of deaths from drone strikes since 2004.