The issue of killer drones has returned to center stage in two Washington arenas. One involves drone memos written by a federal judicial nominee resulting in voiced concerns by both conservative U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The other is a rising debate about plans for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to turn its controversial killer drone program over to the U.S. military.
The judicial nominee is David J. Barron, who President Obama has nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit. Located in Boston, it covers federal appeals cases for New England and Puerto Rico. According to a May 6 article in The Washington Post:
Barron, who previously worked in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, was a principal author of at least one memo that served as the legal foundation for Obama’s decision to order a 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had become a senior al-Qaeda operative in Yemen.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the administration would make “available in a classified setting a copy of the Awlaki opinion to any senator who wishes to review it prior to Barron’s confirmation vote.” The documents previously had been made available only to members on certain committees.
For over two years, many concerned about human rights, including Peculiar Progressive, have publicly criticized the Obama Administration’s killing of accused—rather than convicted–individuals, including American citizens. In many of the CIA’s Middle East drone attacks, reports have spoken of strikes on “suspected terrorists,” but these killings have often included innocent villagers, both adults and children. In the case of al-Awlaki, and his 16-year-old son who was drone-slaughtered in a separate incident, the killing of Americans has become a reluctant issue before a Congress which supports the military-industrial complex in America. You can read some of Peculiar Progressive’s columns on these issues here, here, here, and here.
The current problem to both Paul and the ACLU is in the White House’s releasing only one memo. Both the senator and the civil-liberties organization have criticized Obama’s lack of transparency by not providing all Barron’s memos on drone killings. The ACLU on May 6 sent a two-page letter to all senators regarding Barron’s nomination. It said the ACLU neither endorses nor opposes nominees, but urged delay in approving Barron:
… until all senators have an opportunity to read, with advice of cleared staff, all legal opinions written or signed by Mr. Barron that authorized the killing of an American citizen by an armed drone away from a battlefield, as well as any and all other opinions written or signed by Mr. Barron related to targeted killing.
The ACLU, a legal group whose sole purpose is to protect Americans’ constitutional rights, in its letter added:
Moreover, the office of Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein has publicly estimated that there are at least eleven OLC [Office of Legal Council] opinions on the targeted killing or drone program. Even the Intelligence Committee has been denied access to seven of the OLC opinions. While we do not know whether Mr. Barron wrote or signed more than two of these OLC opinions, senators should ask the White House to provide all OLC opinions written or signed by Mr. Barron on this issue, even if they were earlier denied to the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
We should add that the memo that the White House has offered to let senators read in a classified setting is the same memo that a court last month ordered the government to release publicly in a redacted form.
Paul, in a May 11 op-ed in The New York Times, echoed the ACLU’s call for full transparency, not only with Obama providing any memos regarding the al-Awlaki killing, but openly debating the killer drone policy. He opened his op-ed by saying:
I believe that killing an American citizen without a trial is an extraordinary concept and deserves serious debate. I can’t imagine appointing someone to the federal bench, one level below the Supreme Court, without fully understanding that person’s views concerning the extrajudicial killing of American citizens.
Will the Senate take up such a debate? Only if it hears from concerned citizens.
CIA-Military Drone Exchange
On Sunday, Stars and Stripes, an independent newspaper reporting on the U.S. Armed Forces, published a Tribune Company Washington Bureau story citing a flaring debate over active plans to turn the CIA’s killer drone program over to the military.
The debate centers on a December drone attack in Yemen that killed about a dozen civilians in a wedding convoy. The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conducted the strike. The military says all those killed were militants. The CIA disagreed, according to the Tribune:
According to two U.S. officials who would not be quoted discussing classified matters, the CIA informed JSOC before the attack that the spy agency did not have confidence in the underlying intelligence.
After the missiles hit, CIA analysts assessed that some of the victims may have been local villagers, not militants. The National Counterterrorism Center, which coordinates terrorism intelligence from multiple agencies, is somewhere in the middle, saying the evidence is inconclusive.
What was conclusive is this: the target, a mid-level al-Qaida leader named Shawqi Ali Ahmad Badani, got away, according to the Tribune. This led the newspaper to summarize:
The disagreement among U.S. intelligence analysts — all of whom have access to aerial video footage, communications intercepts, tips from Yemenis and other intelligence — shows that drone targeting is sometimes based on shaky evidence.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is moving ahead with entering some drone operations onto U.S. bases. For example, in Arkansas, the state National Guard’s Fort Smith-based fighter wing will shift from fighter planes to drones. In early April, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told the Senate Appropriations defense committee that the 188th Fighter Wing’s transition to a drone mission remained on track.
In January, Congress funded $40 million for the 188th Fighter Wing, “a good chunk” of which would go for the drone program, according to Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas.