Americans Aren’t Drone Targets. They’re Collateral Damage.

Science, technology, and life.
March 11 2013 8:44 AM

How Drones Kill Americans

They don’t target citizens in the United States. They kill them overseas as collateral damage.

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5. The memos hide more than they reveal. Critics (including me) have accused the administration of asserting dangerously broad authority to kill people it views as threats. The Times suggests this is less about grabbing power than about withholding information. According to the story, the original long memo that justified targeting Awlaki was full of intelligence specific to his case. The administration didn’t want to release this intelligence, so it stripped out all the facts in the memo and converted the framework into a Justice Department “white paper” that was leaked to the press. This means there were lots of contextual factors that, in the view of Obama’s lawyers, justified killing Awlaki. Many of these factors wouldn’t apply in other cases, such as targeting an al-Qaida underling who happens to be a U.S. citizen. By omitting those factors from the white paper, the administration makes it appear as though almost anyone is fair game. To clarify the limits of drone targeting, Obama will have to say more about the conditions that warranted the strike on Awlaki.

6. There’s a shadow target-evaluation process the government isn’t telling us about. So far, the administration’s speeches and legal memos have told us only about the rules for approving explicit targets. Explicit targets are the people whose presence at a site officially justifies a lethal strike. But officials who authorize such strikes often know, from the intelligence that leads to the decision, who else will be at the site. These additional victims may include implicit targets—people who don’t quite meet the standards for being targeted, but whose deaths the U.S. government wouldn’t exactly mourn.

Awlaki may have been one such target. The first airstrike that was thought to have killed him actually took place in December 2009, nearly two years before his death. It was a manned Yemeni air assault, not a U.S. drone strike, but it was guided by U.S. intelligence. At that time, the U.S. didn’t have sufficient evidence to justify targeting Awlaki. Nevertheless, Yemen announced that Awlaki was “presumed to be at the site.” According to the Times, the strike officially targeted other people at the scene, and Awlaki would have been “collateral damage—legally defensible as a death incidental to the military aim.”

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In the September 2011 strike that finally killed Awlaki, the same thing may have occurred. By then, U.S. officials had marked Awlaki for death. According to the Times, they had decided that Samir Khan, a fellow U.S. citizen who ran al-Qaida’s online magazine, “was not a significant enough threat to warrant being specifically targeted.” But the strike on Awlaki took out Khan as well, and Obama’s lawyers argued that Khan’s death “was legally defensible as collateral damage.”

Marcy Wheeler, a blogger who tracks targeted killing, suggests that the U.S. has been doing this since 2002, when it knowingly killed Kamal Derwish—an American citizen accused of recruiting and training al-Qaida operatives—during a drone strike in Yemen. U.S. officials said Derwish was just “collateral damage,” tragically “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

That’s three U.S. citizens who died or were expected to die in strikes that didn’t officially target them. Maybe it’s coincidence. Or maybe, when the U.S. wants to kill an American it can’t explicitly target, it finds a way to catch him in the wrong place at the wrong time. How does the government make such decisions? I’ve never seen any explanation of that process or its ground rules, in any speech or memo, under any administration. Maybe it’s time to ask.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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