An American citizen who is a suspected member of al-Qaida is allegedly planning attacks against Americans overseas, U.S. officials say, and the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to kill him with a drone strike and how to do so legally under its new stricter targeting policy issued last year.
The CIA drones watching him cannot strike because he’s a U.S. citizen. The Pentagon drones that could are barred from the country where he’s hiding, and the Justice Department has not yet finished building a case against him.
Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.
Two of the officials described the man as an al-Qaida facilitator who has been directly responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. citizens overseas and who continues to plan attacks against them that would use improvised explosive devices.
But one U.S. official said the Defense Department was divided over whether the man is dangerous enough to merit the potential domestic fallout of killing an American without charging him with a crime or trying him, and the potential international fallout of such an operation in a country that has been resistant to U.S. action.
Another of the U.S. officials said the Pentagon did ultimately decide to recommend lethal action.
The officials said the suspected terrorist is well-guarded and in a fairly remote location, so any unilateral attempt by U.S. troops to capture him would be risky and even more politically explosive than a U.S. missile strike.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday he would not comment on specific operations and pointed to Obama’s comments in the major counterterrorism speech last May about drone policy.
“When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team,” Carney said, quoting from Obama’s speech last year.
Under new guidelines Obama addressed in the speech made to calm anger overseas at the extent of the U.S. drone campaign, lethal force must only be used “to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.” The target must also pose “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” — the legal definition of catching someone in the act of plotting a lethal attack.
See: Leaked DOJ Memo Reveals Legal Case for Drone Strikes on Americans & U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities
The Associated Press has agreed to the government’s request to withhold the name of the country (Pakistan, see update below) where the suspected terrorist is believed to be because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterror operations.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified drone targeting program publicly.
Two of the U.S. officials said the Justice Department review of the American suspected terrorist started last fall.
The senior administration official confirmed that the Justice Department was working to build a case against the suspected terrorist. The official said, however, the legal procedure being followed is the same as when the U.S. killed militant cleric and former Virginia resident Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen in 2011, long before the new targeted killing policy took effect.
The official said the president could make an exception to his policy and authorize the CIA to strike on a onetime basis or authorize the Pentagon to act despite the possible objections of the country in question.
The Justice Department, the Pentagon and the CIA declined to comment.
If the target is an American citizen, the Justice Department is required to show that killing the person through military action is “legal and constitutional”— in this case, that the Pentagon can take action against the American, as the administration has ruled him an enemy combatant under the Authorization for Use of Military Force, a resolution Congress passed a week after the 9/11 attacks to target al-Qaida.
“So little has changed since last year, when it comes to government secrecy over killings,” said Amnesty International’s Naureen Shah on Monday. “The policy is still the stuff of official secrecy and speculation, when it should be a matter of open debate and explicit constraints.”
The administration says U.S. drones have killed four Americans since 2009, including al-Awlaki, who officials said was actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the three other Americans were killed by drones, but were not targeted. The three are Samir Khan, who was killed in the same drone strike as al-Awlaki; al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a native of Denver who was killed in Yemen two weeks later; and Jude Kenan Mohammed, who was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan.
The government’s drone policy is unconstitutional. The Fifth Amendment states that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process.” Accordingly, the federal government, under no circumstances, can deny any person’s individual rights without due process of law.
The Obama administration is considering authorizing the CIA or the military to kill an American citizen hiding in Pakistan who allegedly has helped Al Qaeda militants plan attacks against U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan and is actively plotting future attacks, officials said Monday.
Pakistan does not allow the U.S. military to operate there, and the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 sparked outrage in the country. The CIA has launched hundreds of lethal drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, with Islamabad publicly criticizing the campaign but widely seen as giving tacit approval. However, the agency has not fired any missiles since December, at the request of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who recently began peace talks with leaders of the Taliban movement in Pakistan.
Several Americans have been linked to Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
They include Adam Gadahn, a spokesman for Al Qaeda who was born in Oregon and grew up in Santa Ana. He is seen as a propagandist, rather than an operational figure, and is under federal indictment in California.
The others are Abu Ibrahim Amriki and Sayfullah al-Amriki, both of whom were reportedly on the CIA target list in 2010, according to the Islamabad newspaper News Online, which says it got the list from Pakistani intelligence sources.