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The al-Awlaki Drone Killing Memo Tells Us Nothing New and Nothing Good

The release of a DOJ memo explaining the rationale of targeting of a US citizen is post hoc justification, not justice.

by Natasha Lennard
Jun 24 2014, 9:20pm

Photo by Muhammad ud-Deen

The Intercept's Ryan Devereaux perhaps best crystallized the circular logic on display in the newly released Justice Department memo justifying the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike in 2011: "Based on facts represented to us by entities intending to kill this American, this American can be killed," tweeted Devereaux, mocking the thinly veiled repetition, passed off as judicial reasoning, in the memo.

The DOJ memo was released Monday by a federal court, replete with heavy redactions. The release comes after years of legal wrangling and advocacy by human rights groups and Congress members like Sen. Rand Paul, demanding to know the rationale for targeting an American citizen on soil far from any official war zone.

The Obama administration has long rested on stating that al-Awlaki was a senior al Qaeda operative.

But we know too well that the borders of official war zones have been all but erased through the lethal applications of drone technologies.

Why have US drones targeted so many houses in Pakistan? Read more here.

"Disposition matrices" to determine loosely defined imminent threats have replaced front lines.

The memo's release this week gives no information of how the US came to understand that al-Awlaki was an imminent threat. Its assertion that imminent threats are fair game for extrajudicial killing has underpinned the sort of executive overreach through which targeted killings proceed outside of due process.

There is process, to be sure: The CIA carries out drone strikes, the Justice Department inscribes into the record a rationale.

It is justification without justice, par excellence. And if there were any doubt on that point, consider the fact that the al-Awlaki memo was written in July 2010; the first known US attempt to kill the target, as author and journalist Jeremy Scahill pointed out, came in December 2009.

We have here proof that these DOJ memos are little more than post hoc procedural paperwork.

It was announced in late May that the memo would be released. And as I noted at the time, it was political maneuvering, not justice, that prompted the release.

Killing Anwar al-Awlaki with a drone strike was legal, and that's scary. Read more here.

It was an offering by the administration to ensure that the memo's author, former Justice Department official David Barron, would pass the Senate vote to be confirmed as a judge of the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

I noted at the time, too, that we should expect little from the document. We should recognize it for what it is: the letter of the law, that brings the extra-legal into the realm of the legal by the fact of its existence, irrelevant of the scarcity of its content.

The memo, albeit redacted, does not give strong reasoning for the Obama administration's choice of al-Awlaki as a target.

We know now what we knew before — that so-called targeted killing is based on a circular logic, beholden only to the determinations of the legal and political logicians in the government.

Drones are just airpower without all the adult diapers. Read more here.

All we learn from the memo is that the US will kill who the US wants to kill, citizen or none, and will always be able to churn out an argument to justify it.

Perhaps "argument" goes too far.

We know only that the government can kill at will and that the DOJ can provide the rubber stamp.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard

Image via Wikimedia Commons