It's already been a very intriguing week in war news. It all started when a group of 11 senators from both sides of the aisle sent President Obama a very simple request. They wanted to see "any and all legal opinions" that justify the killing of American citizens, including targeted drone strikes, in the war on terror. That doesn't seem like an unreasonable request, especially since the government can't even seem to keep track of how many people they're killing. Surely, they must have some reference point to justify the bloodshed.
The government's been guarding this secret pretty closely, but something was bound to come out this week. The senators' letter arrived just three days before John Brennan, Obama's choice for the next CIA director and the mastermind of the government's drone playbook, is scheduled to sit for his confirmation hearing. As Obama's former top-counterterrorism advisor, Brennan should be able to offer the senators some clarity about how the military and spy agencies decide when to kill and when to capture, and surely someone on the Senate Intelligence Committee was planning to ask him when he took the stand. Thanks to some dogged reporting, though, the lawmakers didn't have to wait for Obama or Brennan to explain themselves. A leaked confidential document does it for them.
On Monday night, NBC's Michael Isikoff published a never-before-seen "white paper" from the Justice Department sent to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees last year that details the legal reasoning behind drone strikes, specifically the ones that target United States citizens. This has been a burning question at least as long as we've known about two drone strikes in Yemen in September 2011, one that killed American-born al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and another that accidentally killed his son, who was reportedly looking for his father. (Said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at the time: "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children.")
Al-Awlaki and his son had not been indicted, had not been tried and had not been convicted of any crimes. Unlike other American citizens suspected of—much less charged with—crimes, al-Awlaki did not get the due process that every other American does. Even more disturbing perhaps: nor did he nor anyone else, with the exception of a select few, know why exactly he landed on a kill list. Now we have some idea, thanks to a document that some have likened to the "torture memos" that gave the Bush administration its own very controversial extrajudicial hammer.
Brennan is without a doubt one of the people that helped make that decision and dozens of other questionable calls as part of the country's drone program. Brennan acknowledged the attacks in a speech last year and argued that they were "consistent with the inherent right of self-defense." The newly uncovered Justice Department white paper, a brief reportedly drafted last summer, backs up that claim and provides some strikingly ambiguous parameters for ordering hits on US citizens.