Summary: GI WIlson explains that we now have enough experience with drone warfare to study its effects. Just as in physics, our actions affect ourselves as well as our targets. Social science research shows that drones are a gateway to moral disengagement dehumanization, and deindividuation. The great distances drones operate over, manipulated by faceless-nameless-lawyeristic-voyeurs, creates an emotional, mental, and physical divide between “us” ( i.e. our government) and the enemies we kill. Drones allow us to dissociate our actions from our values, a useful high-cost and high-tech justification. At the end are links to gain more information about this new form of warfare.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
— Newtons Third Law of Motion, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687)
- Moral Disengagement
- Articles about UAV’s
- Other posts about UAVs
(1) Moral Disengagement
Bandura studied the behaviour of individuals engaging in destructive activities towards others, describing it as “moral disengagement”. “People do not generally act out destructively unless they have a mechanism to morally justify their actions to themselves and others” Moral disengagement encompasses ways one mitigates, justifies, neutralizes, or eliminates inhibitions or moral constraints connected to committing acts of violence or a crime. Bandura holds that people use moral disengagement techniques such as “cognitive reconstruction and dehumanization to view certain despicable acts or conduct as justifiable or rational” (Bandura, 2004).
McAlister, Bandura, & Owen (2006) describe four behavioural prongs of moral disengagement associated with violence particularly as it pertains to the military. The four prongs are moral justification, minimization of detrimental effects, disavowal of responsibility and dehumanization (McAlister, Bandura, & Owen, 2006):
At the behaviour locus, people transform lethal means into benevolent and moral ones through moral justification, advantageous comparison, and sanitizing language. At the agency locus, they are relieved of a sense of personal accountability by displacement and diffusion of responsibility. At the outcome locus, the injurious effects of lethal means are disregarded, minimized, or disputed. At the other end, foes are dehumanized and blamed for bringing the suffering on themselves (p. 142).
Dehumanization involves obscuring and/or distorting the human identity and qualities of an enemy (or victim) that are either known or unknown to the perpetrator of violence. The enemy (or victim) is seen as nothing more than objects — rather than anything human. “In war, we dehumanize the enemy by using derogatory epithets. Like justifying the ‘rightness’ of violence, however, dehumanization also works from both perspectives” (Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 361). Dehumanization is a two-edged sword. Yes, it works for the public good in time of war but unfortunately it also can work for the violent criminal. Dehumanization for the violent criminal means he feels little or no remorse for any of the suffering he inflicts nor does he worry about the consequences.
Dehumanization is based in part on the premise that dehumanization (i.e. divestment of human qualities) makes killing a known person (instead of a stranger) easier in some respects. Thus, dehumanization protocols may facilitate violent behaviour. The antithesis may hold true as well where it may be is easier to kill a stranger (e.g. the enemy) when divested of human qualities. Dehumanization can aptly be likened to a two-way street where it is irrelevant whether the “target” is known or unknown just as long as it is dehumanized
Bandura posits that once a “target” is dehumanized they are no longer viewed as people with feelings, hopes, concerns but seen as savages, unwashed masses, evil cowards, and so on (Bandura, 2004, p.136; Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 352). Thus, the mass or serial murderer along with other violent criminals who continually engages in assaultive behaviour, view their victims as being divested of humanity (Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 361).
Bandura notes that dehumanization and displacement of responsibility are moral disengagement techniques. These techniques and practices may shape an individual’s psychological makeup, facilitating the commission of violent acts (Weisbach, 2004; Bandura, 2004). Disengagement encompasses ways a person neutralizes or removes any inhibitions they have about committing horrific acts. Some other common patterns include “imagining one’s self as a hero, portraying one’s self as a functionary, thus, minimizing the harm done, and dehumanizing the victim” (Alvanou, 2007, p 88).
“Deindividuation is a process by which individuals feel they cannot be identified primarily because they are disguised or subsumed within a group” (Bartol & Bartol, 2005, p. 556). In other words, masks and disguises provide anonymity. The anonymity in turns feeds into the commission of a violent act or acts that people otherwise would not normally participate in or be a willing accessory to a violent act or crime.
Silke (2003) examined the relation between anonymity and aggression in 500 violent interpersonal assaults that occurred in Northern Ireland where 206 of the 500 offenders wore disguises to mask their identities. Silke’s efforts revealed a significant positive relationship between the use of disguises and violence. Silke’s findings support previous research in this area to include the work of Watson (1973) who suggests people are way more violent when their identity is hidden (Silke, 2003):
A significant number of studies have demonstrated that individuals who believed their identity was unknown were more likely to behave in an aggressive and punitive manner. Zimbardo (1969) showed that participants who had masked their identities (with hoods covering their faces) were much more likely to administer electric shocks-and at more severe levels-than people whose identities were not hidden. Zimbardo’s study was carried out under laboratory conditions with university students as participants, but some evidence suggests that the effect occurs in the real world as well (p. 493).
(4) Articles about UAV’s
- Prattling about the legalities by the skilled attorneys at the Volokh Conspiracy. But government-loving attorney cohort will explain why anything it does is legal, why bother? Including indefinite detention without trial, torture, and assassination of of citizens.
- Filling the Skies with Assassins, Tom Engelhardt, 7 April 2009
- The Forty-Year Drone War, Nick Turse, 24 January 2010
- America Detached from War, Tom Engelhardt, 24 June 2010 — Bush’s Pilotless Dream, Smoking Drones, and Other Strange Tales from the Crypt
- An excellent introduction: “Drone Wars: Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“, Andrew Callam, International Affairs Review, Winter 2010
- “The Drone Wars – Killing by remote control in Pakistan“, The Atlantic, December 2010
- “A Secret License to Kill“, David Cole, New York Review of Books, 19 September 2011
- “Predators and Robots at War“. Christian Caryl, New York Review of Books, 29 September 2011 — “The day when US forces are attacked by a drone—perhaps even one operated by a terrorist — is not far away.”
- Recommended introduction to UAV warfare: “Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War“, Leila Hudson et al, Middle East Policy, Fall 2011
(5) Other posts about UAVs on the FM website
- “Filling the skies with Assassins” by Tom Engelhardt, 12 April 2009
- America’s dominance of the sky slowly erodes – inevitable or avoidable?, 22 September 2009
- The march of technology brings “The Forty-Year Drone War”, 26 January 2010
- James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, on the FM website, 18 May 2010
- America plays the Apollo Option: killing from the sky, Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired), 26 August 2010
- Killing Machines: Promises and Limits, 17 February 2011
- Cyberwar: a Whole New Quagmire – When the Drones Come To Roost, 8 October 2011
- Obama + assassination + drones = a dark future for America, 1 August 2013
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- Alvanou, M. (2007). Palestinian women suicide bombers: The interplaying effects of Islam, nationalism and honor culture. Tel Aviv: Hameiri Press.
- Bandura, A. (2004). The role of selective moral disengagement in terrorism and counterterrorism. In F. M. Moghaddam, & A. J. Marsella (Eds.), Understanding terrorism: Psychosocial roots, consequences and interventions (pp. 121-150). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Barlow, D., & Durand, V. (2009). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2004). Forensic Psychology. London: Sage Publications.
- Bartol, C., & Bartol, A. (2005). Criminal behaviour a psychological approach (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Berkowitz, L. (1970). The contagion of violence: An S-R meditational analysis of some effects of observed aggression. In W. Arnold & M. Page (Eds.), Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Englander, E. (2007). Understanding violence (3rd ed.). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Fister, K. (2009). Schizophrenia is linked to violence, but mostly through substance misuse. British Medical Journal, 339, 442.
- Flannery, D., Vazsonyi, A., & Waldman, I. (Eds.). (2007). The Cambridge handbook of violent behaviour and aggression. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Galanter, M. (Ed.). (1997). Epidemiological issues in alcohol related violence. New York: Plenum.
- Hare, R. (1993). Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. New York: Pocket Books.
- Johns, A. (1997). Substance misuse: a primary risk and a major problem of co morbidity. International Review of Psychiatry, 9, 233.
- Kaliski, S. (2002). A comparison of risk factors for habitual violence in pre-trial subjects. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 106, 58.
- Kilpatrick, D., Acierno, R., Resnick, H., Saunders, B., & Best, C. (1997). A 2-year longitudinal analysis of the relationships between violent assault and substance use in women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(), pp. 834-847
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- Mawson, A. (1999). Reinterpreting physical violence: Outcome of intense stimulation seeking behaviour. Academic Emergency Medicine, 6, 863-865.
- McAlister, A., Bandura, A., & Owen, S. (2006). Mechanisms of moral disengagement in support of military force: Impact of Sept. 11. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 141-165.
- Meloy, R. (2004). The psychopathic mind. New York: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.
- Mohandie, K., & Hatcher, C. (1999). Suicide and violence risk in law enforcement: Practical guidelines for risk assessment, prevention, and intervention. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 17, 357-376.
- Nemecek, S. (1998, September). Forestalling violence. Scientific American, 279(3), 15.
- O’Connor, T. (2006). The criminology of terrorism: Theories and models. Retrieved November 12, 2006
- Pandina, R. (2006). Idiosyncratic alcohol intoxication (revisited): A construct that has lost its validity (still?). In L. Schlesinger (Ed.), Explorations in criminal psychopathology (pp. 56-65). Springfield, Ill: Thomas Publishers.
- Routolo, A. (1968). Dynamics of sudden murder. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 26, 162.
- Sandhu, D. (2001). Faces of violence. Huntington, NY: Nova.
- Schlesinger, L. (2007). Explorations in criminal psychopathology. Springfield, Ill: Thomas Publishers.
- Silke, A. (2003). Deindividuation, anonymity, and violence: Findings from Northern Ireland. The Journal of Social Psychology, 143, 493.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2001). Youth Violence Linked to Substance Use. Retrieved July 21, 2009
- Taylor, P. (2008). Psychosis and Violence: Stories, Fears, and Reality. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 53, 647-
- Toch, H. (1969). Violent men: Inquiry into the psychology of violence. Chicago, IL: Aldeline.
- Tolan, P. (2007). Understanding violence. In D. Flannery, A. Vazsonyi, & I. Waldman (Eds.), Violent behaviour and aggression (pp. 5-18). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Volavka, J. (2002). Neurobiology of violence (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Walsh, Z., & Walsh, T. (2006). The evidentiary introduction of PCL-R assessed psychopathy in U.S. courts: Extent and appropriateness. Law and Human Behavior, 30, 493-507.
- Walsh, Z., Swogger, M., & Kosson, D. (2009). Psychopathy and violence: Facet level relationships. Journal of Personality Disorders, 23, 416-425.
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- Watson, R. (1973). Investigation into deindividuation using a cross-cultural survey technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25, 342-345.
- Zillman, D. (1979). Hostility and aggression ( ed.). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Zillman, D. (1983). Aggression: Theoretical and empirical reviews. In R. Green & E. Donnerstein (Eds.), Arousal and aggression. New York: Academic Press.
- Zimbardo, P. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. In W. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 237-307). Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska.
25 thoughts on “The Psychology of Killer Drones – action against our foes; reaction affecting us”
Isn’t this in a broader sense a philosophical question where one asks: “is it alright to do one thing, even though it is wrong, because it nets even more good things?” ie: Utilitarianism.
That versus doing what’s right because it is right and damn the consequences (or rejoice in them).
Utilitarianism fails because it tries to sweep under the carpet the fact that we don’t have the wherewithal to make an accurate (or even an unbiassed!) assessment of what is better in the long run, or for the greatest number. Every instance in which someone defends their error by saying “it seemed like a good idea at the time” is a refutation of utilitarianism.
Doing what we think is right, whatever that is, and damn the consequences, is a form of embracing moral nihilism. We recognize that we cannot objectively support our values but we’re willing to assert them regardless of the cost to ourselves and others.
Kant’s categorical imperative seems to apply, to me. We should imagine what kind of a world it would be if every state that could afford missile-armed drones felt it was appropriate to fly cross-border killing missions to further their political agendas, with no attempt to gain legitimacy or engage in diplomacy prior to doing so. Is that the kind of world we wish to live in? Would we complain or retaliate if we were on the receiving end of such treatment? If the answer is “yes” then we’re on dangerous ground when we do it ourselves because we’re establishing a precedent we clearly don’t want to live under. Thus, “might makes right” is all well and good as long as you’re the mighty one.
Off the shelf R/C kits, GPS and video gear can produce a credible off the shelf civilian drone-oid for under $1000 per unit. We may someday regret having declared unrestricted drone warfare; drones could come back to haunt us.
I for one do not want to live in a world where we, or other countries, begin to unilaterally engage in drone warfare. Nor do I want a world where countries preemtively go to war with one another, ours included.
If those are our macro world views, wouldn’t it influence how we interact on an individual basis?
Thank you for this very well-researched post. A question which occurred to me as I was reading it, which I hope you may be able to answer, is: Exactly what is it about drone killings which makes them different, in terms of de-humanization and de-individuation, from forms of killing typically used in “conventional” war? Is it just a matter of degree?
Matt, recommend reading LtCol Dave Grossman’s works ( e.g. “On Killing”) which I think will provide some insight. An example I offer which you may find useful is the personalized killing that comes with edged weapons. See this from “Edged Weapons and Gang Culture“, by Richard Valdemar, Police, 1 February 2011 — “Since the earliest days, gangs have relied on utilitarian edged tools to attack each other, as well as officers.” Excerpt:
Thanks, Colonel. So the gist of what you are saying is that because killing with drones is so much less visceral than other kinds of killing, it is too easy?
Asymmetric warfare. Find the enemy, fix the enemy, kill the enemy. Simple in concept. We don’t go around planting IED’s. We try to minimize ‘collateral’ damage. But when the enemy are like rats and roaches running from the light, you have to be ready to strike with a force that is flexible, effective and affordable. If we have the ability to substitute drones for American lives, why not? All this gnashing of teeth about psycho-babble is the history of warfare. Whether you are talking about subs and sinking ships at sea with all hands aboard, or launching volleys of arrows or shooting cannons at an advancing army, fighting from a distance is always the better choice. Up close and personal is the last choice of the fighting man because of the viciousness involved. Why so much emphasis on stopping power of ammo, accuracy of weapon, rate of fire, etc.? To keep the fight at a distance if at all possible.
With proper training, those employing drone technology do not have to become crazed, hardened killers who are insensitive to mankind. It is simply a way to deal with an enemy who does not wear the uniform of a country, recognizes no borders in it’s fight, and who will not come out and fight army to army. Rather we spend money on drones, expensive as they may be, rather than prosthetics for our men and women maimed by IED’s. Drone operators are like snipers in a lot of ways. They get eyes on their target and they get to view the subject(s) up close and personal before taking the shot. Call it justification but that is the nature of the fight. Kill the enemy. Maybe our problem is we are not using our weapons indiscriminately enough, as in wiping out villages that host and support our enemy. The ones that are known to be Taliban havens. COIN, in my opinion, is not a panacea. I think it has it’s place but places like A-stan are not the kind of place where it will work. There is nothing for it to work on.
And then there are those who worry about what we are unleashing upon ourselves. RC devices. Oh noooo! Get a grip, for goodness sake. Every leap in technology has resulted in the enemy finding a way to copy and/or counter each advance. You have bronze, hah, we have steel! How can we sleep at night knowing the enemy can afford remote controlled airplanes bringing bombs into the U.S. As for me, I worry more about Iraq with nuclear weapons.
Thanks for this writeup, Colonel Wilson, and for the links. Interesting points about the psychology of different modes of violence.
I’m not sure why but the issue of drones seems to be sleeper one with the US public. It is not much discussed. And I am not sure why, perhaps because the concept of truly remote-controlled violence is hard to understand?
Remote killing using drones is most likely not a public issue because it relieves the potential of an American soldier or soldiers being killed. That certainly would be a factor in the quiet support in the use of such weaponry.
Recommended reading: “Sex and the Single Drone – The Latest in Guarding the Empire” By Tom Engelhardt, 29 September 2011
“A Secret License to Kill“, David Cole, New York Review of Books, 19 September 2011:
On Friday, a front-page New York Times story reported that a rift has emerged within the Obama Administration over whether it has authority to kill “rank-and-file” Islamist militants in foreign countries in which there is not an internationally recognized “armed conflict.” The implications of this debate are not trivial: Imagine that Russia started killing individuals living in the United States with remote-controlled drone missiles, and argued that it was justified in doing so because it had determined, in secret, that they posed a threat to Russia’s security, and that the United States was unwilling to turn them over. Would we calmly pronounce such actions compliant with the rule of law? Not too likely.
And yet that is precisely the argument that the Obama Administration is now using in regard to American’s own actions in places like Yemen and Somalia—and by extension anywhere else it deems militant anti-US groups may be taking refuge. On the same day the Times article appeared, John Brennan, President Obama’s senior advisor on homeland security and counterterrorism, gave a speech at Harvard Law School in which he defended the United States’ use of drones to kill terrorists who are far from any “hot battlefield.” Brennan argued that the United States is justified in killing members of violent Islamist groups far from Afghanistan if they pose a threat to the United States, even if the threat is not “imminent” as that term has traditionally been understood. (As if to underscore the point, The Washington Post reports that the US has “significantly increased” its drone attacks in Yemen in recent months, out of fears that the government may collapse.)
In international law, where reciprocity governs, what is lawful for the goose is lawful for the gander. And when the goose is the United States, it sets a precedent that other countries may well feel warranted in following. Indeed, exploiting the international mandate to fight terrorism that has emerged since the September 11 attacks, Russia has already expanded its definition of terrorists to include those who promote “terrorist ideas”—for example, by distributing information that might encourage terrorist activity— and to authorize the Russian government to target “international terrorists” in other countries. It may seem fanciful that Russia would have the nerve to use such an authority within the United States—though in the case of Alexsander Litvinenko it appears to have had few qualms about taking extreme measures to kill an individual who had taken refuge in the United Kingdom. But it is not at all fanciful that once the US proclaims such tactics legitimate, other nations might seek to use them against their less powerful neighbors.
Ironically, Brennan’s speech lauded the benefits of fighting terrorism within the confines of the rule of law. When we uphold the rule of law, Brennan argued, “our counterterrorism tools are more likely to withstand the scrutiny of our courts, our allies, and the American people,” and to offer “a powerful alternative” to al Qaeda’s lawless ways. Indeed, as I argue in the current issue of The New York Review, the Obama administration deserves credit—along with civil society and the courts—for helping to restore the rule of law, at least partially, after the blatant disregard with which its predecessor dismissed it in the immediate aftermath of September 11.
Yet as the New York Times report makes clear, when it comes to targeted killings, there is serious dispute, even within the administration, about what the law permits. . Some, like State Department legal advisor Harold Koh, take the position that beyond the battlefield, we can attack only those “high-value individuals” who are actually engaged in plotting attacks on the United States, and only where their threats are specific enough to allow the US to claim the right to self-defense granted to all states under the UN Charter. The Charter permits nations to use unilateral military force only in self-defense against an armed attack, and has been interpreted to permit self-defense against threatened attacks only when they are imminent.. Defense Department lawyers maintain, by contrast, that the ongoing war against al-Qaeda authorizes us to kill any of the thousands of rank and file members not only of al-Qaeda itself, but also of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a Yemen-based group founded in 2009—and of al-Shabab, a Somalia-based militant group. Although both of the latter organizations were founded well after the September 11 attacks, the Defense Department considers them fair game because it deems them to be associated with al Qaeda.
In his Harvard speech, Brennan deftly avoided siding with either contending position. He insisted that the administration’s policy is “focused on those individuals who are a threat to the United States, whose removal would cause a significant—even if temporary—disruption of the plans and capabilities of al-Qaeda and its associated forces.” But note his use of the words “focused” and “associated forces.” He did not say that the administration’s targeting authority was limited to such individuals, only that for the moment that is where the US’s strategic focus lies. And he did not define what counts as an “associated force.” Is the US’s desire to disrupt temporarily the capabilities of al Shabab, a group largely consumed by an internal conflict in Somalia, enough to justify killing a high-ranking member (let alone the “rank and file”) with a drone, even if neither the individual nor the group is poised to attack us? Brennan’s formula seemed to suggest as much. And published accounts report that the US has indeed attacked al Shabab members with drones in Somalia.
Brennan further argued that the UN Charter requirement that a threat be imminent before a nation can exercise its right of self-defense makes less sense when a country faces a threat from a clandestine terrorist group, whose threats may be harder to spot in advance. But the purpose of that requirement was to ensure that military force is truly a last resort. Too many wars have been launched on the basis of ill-defined future threats. The watered-down imminence that Brennan seemed to advocate, especially when coupled with his suggestion that even a temporary disruption of “capabilities” is sufficient reason to strike, would seem to permit targeting even where no attack is in fact imminent. Such reasoning could also be used to justify lethal force in cases where it might well be possible to foil a possible attack through arrest, criminal prosecution, interdiction, or other means. As many countries, including Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and, Italy have shown, the fact that organized groups seek to engage in politically motivated violence does not necessitate a military response.
The legal parameters defining the use of military force against terrorists are unquestionably difficult to draw. On the one hand, no one disputes that it is permissible to kill an enemy soldier on the battlefield in an ongoing armed conflict. On the other hand, absent extreme circumstances, constitutional and international law bar a state from killing a human being in peacetime without a trial (and even then, many authorities hold that capital punishment violates international human rights law). Al-Qaeda has not limited its fight to the battlefield in Afghanistan, and most agree that, as long as sovereignty concerns are met, the use of military force can follow this enemy beyond the battlefield at least in some situations. Killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan—whose tribal areas are for all practical purposes part of the theater of war—was the justified targeting of the enemy’s leader. But are al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Shabab the same “enemy,” or merely sympathetic adherents of a terrorist philosophy? They certainly did not attack us on September 11, nor are they harboring those who did. Can we summarily execute all terrorists who we fear might someday commit a terrorist act against us? Brennan’s speech offered no answers.
And that makes it especially disturbing that the contours of US policy and practice in this area remain largely secret. Presumably the administration has developed criteria for who can be killed and why, and a process for assessing who fits those criteria and when their targeting is justified. But if so, it hasn’t told us. Instead, it exercises the authority to kill, not only in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, but in Yemen,Somalia, and presumably elsewhere, based on a secret policy. We learn more about its outlines from leaks to The New York Times than from the cryptic comments of US officials in speeches like Brennan’s. If we are engaging the enemy within the rule of law, as Brennan insisted we must, we should have the courage to make our policies transparent, so that the people, both in the United States and beyond, can judge for themselves. And if, by contrast, we continue to justify such practices in only the vaguest of terms, we should expect other countries to take them up—and almost certainly in ways we will not find to our liking.
“Drone strike on 2 Americans raises questions“, Associated Press, 30 September 2011
President Barack Obama steered the nation’s war machine into uncharted territory Friday when a U.S. drone attacked a convoy in Yemen and killed two American citizens who had become central figures in al-Qaida.
It was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and executed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so. And it raised major questions about the limitations of presidential power.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the target of the U.S. drone attack, was one of the best-known al-Qaida figures after Osama bin Laden. American intelligence officials had linked him to two nearly catastrophic attacks on U.S.-bound planes, an airliner on Christmas 2009 and cargo planes last year. The second American killed in the drone attack, Samir Kahn, was the editor of Inspire, a slick online magazine aimed at al-Qaida sympathizers in the West.
“Al-Qaida and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world,” Obama said in announcing al-Awlaki’s death. “Working with Yemen and our other allies and partners, we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans.”
Republicans and Democrats alike applauded the decision to launch the fatal assault on the convoy in Yemen.
“It’s something we had to do,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “The president is showing leadership. The president is showing guts.”
“It’s legal,” said Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s legitimate and we’re taking out someone who has attempted to attack us on numerous occasions. And he was on that list.”
That list is the classified roster of people the White House has authorized the CIA and Pentagon to kill or capture as terrorists. The evidence against them almost always is classified. Targets never know for sure they are on the list, though some surely wouldn’t be surprised.
The list has included dozens of names, from little-known mid-level figures in the wilds of Pakistan to bin Laden, who was killed in his compound in a comfortable Pakistani suburb.
Before al-Awlaki, no American had been on the list.
But the legal process that led to his death was set in motion years ago. On Sept. 17, 2001, President George W. Bush signed a presidential order authorizing the CIA to hunt down terrorists worldwide. The authority was rooted in his power as commander in chief, leading a nation at war with al-Qaida.
The order made no distinction between foreigners and U.S. citizens. If they posed a “continuing and imminent threat” to the United States, they were eligible to be killed, former intelligence officials said.
The order was reviewed by top lawyers at the White House, CIA and Justice Department. With the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoking, there was little discussion about whether U.S. citizens should have more protection, the officials recalled, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter. The feeling was that the government needed — and had — broad authority to find and kill terrorists who were trying to strike the U.S.
The CIA first faced the issue in November 2002, when it launched a Predator drone attack in Yemen. An American terror suspect who had fled there, Kamal Derwish, was killed by Hellfire missiles launched on his caravan.
The Bush administration said Derwish wasn’t the target. The attack was intended for Yemeni al-Qaida leader Abu Ali al-Harithi. But officials said even then that, if it ever came to it, they had the authority to kill an American.
“I can assure you that no constitutional questions are raised here. There are authorities that the president can give to officials,” Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, said. “He’s well within the balance of accepted practice and the letter of his constitutional authority.”
Al-Awlaki had not then emerged as a leading al-Qaida figure. Before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the New Mexico-born cleric had been a preacher at the northern Virginia mosque attended briefly by two hijackers. He was interviewed but never charged by the FBI.
But at the CIA, the officers in charge of finding targets knew it was only a matter of time before they would set the Predator drone’s high-definition sites on an American.
“We knew at some point there would have to be a straight call made on this,” one former senior intelligence official said.
It was Obama who ultimately made that call.
After the failed Christmas bombing, the Nigerian suspect told the FBI that he had met with al-Awlaki and said he was instrumental in the plot. Al-Awlaki had also called for attacks on Americans and had attended meetings with senior al-Qaida leaders in Yemen. Al-Awlaki had gone from an inspirational figure to an operational leader, officials said.
In April 2010, the White House added al-Awlaki’s name to the kill-or-capture list. Senior administration officials said they reviewed the Bush administration’s executive order and discussed the ramifications of putting an American on the list but said it was a short conversation. They concluded that the president had the authority, both under the congressional declaration of war against al-Qaida and international law.
“Anwar al-Awlaki is acting as a regional commander for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters in August.
What if the U.S. was wrong, Gibbs was asked, what recourse does a citizen have to save himself? The CIA had misidentified and imprisoned the wrong person before. Gibbs sidestepped the question.
The U.S. has been inconsistent in how it describes al-Awlaki. The Treasury Department called him a leader of al-Qaida in Yemen. FBI Director Robert Mueller called him the leader. On Friday, Obama called him “the leader of external operations,” the first time he has been described that way.
Al-Awlaki’s family rushed to court to try to stop the government from killing him, saying he had to be afforded the constitutional right to due process.
The idea of killing an American citizen provided critics with fodder for all sorts of comparisons showing the peculiarities of national security law and policy. The government could not listen to al-Awlaki’s phone calls without a judge’s approval, for instance, but could kill him on the president’s say-so. The Obama administration opposed imprisoning terrorist suspects without due process but supported killing them without due process.
“If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state,” ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner said Friday.
U.S. District Judge John Bates refused to intervene in al-Awlaki’s case.
“This court recognizes the somewhat unsettling nature of its conclusion — that there are circumstances in which the executive’s unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas is ‘constitutionally committed to the political branches’ and judicially unreviewable,” Bates wrote. “But this case squarely presents such a circumstance.”
Like Derwish years ago, Khan, a North Carolina native, was called collateral damage in the drone attack, not the target.
Al-Awlaki may have been the perfect test case for the government. His sermons in English are posted all over the Internet and his name has been associated with several attempted terrorist attacks. In the intelligence community, many regarded him as a bigger threat than bin Laden because of his ability to inspire Westerners and his focus on attacking the U.S.
But in taking this step, the Obama administration raised questions about whom else the president has the authority to kill. In principle, such an attack could probably not happen inside the United States because the CIA is forbidden from operating here and the military is limited in what operations it can carry out domestically. But civil rights groups have questioned whether the government has opened the door to that possibility.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney refused to even acknowledge the government’s direct role in killing al-Awlaki. He repeatedly ducked questions about the extent of Obama’s authority and said only that al-Awlaki had been an operational leader for al-Qaida.
“Is there going to be any evidence presented?” Carney was asked.
“You know, I don’t have anything for you on that,” he responded.
King, the Republican lawmaker, said it was necessary that the president to have the authority to act against those at war with the U.S. And it was no secret to the public, he said, that al-Awlaki was at war. But he acknowledged that it set a precedent that could make people uncomfortable.
“There could be a situation where nobody knows the evidence, where you’re relying on the government to say what its intelligence is,” King said. “With al-Awlaki, it was clear-cut. He made it a clear call.”
“Secret U.S. memo sanctioned killing of Aulaqi“, Washington Post, 30 September 2011
The Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born radical cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike Friday, according to administration officials. The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the
administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said.
The Washington Post’s Africa bureau chief, Sudarsan Raghavan, reports from Yemen about what Anwar al-Aulaqi’s death means for the Yemens and for the long-term U.S.-Yemen relationship. “What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closely held deliberations within the administration.
The administration has faced a legal challenge and public criticism for targeting Aulaqi, who was born in New Mexico, because of constitutional protections afforded U.S. citizens. The memorandum may represent an attempt to resolve, at least internally, a legal debate over whether a president can order the killing of U.S. citizens overseas as a counterterrorism measure.
The operation to kill Aulaqi involved CIA and military assets under CIA control. A former senior intelligence official said that the CIA would not have killed an American without such a written opinion.
A second American killed in Friday’s attack was Samir Khan, a driving force behind Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. An administration official said the CIA did not know Khan was
with Aulaqi, but they also considered Khan a belligerent whose presence near the target would not have stopped the attack.
The circumstances of Khan’s death were reminiscent of a 2002 U.S. drone strike in Yemen that targeted Abu Ali al-Harithi, a Yemeni al-Qaeda operative accused of planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. That strike also killed a U.S. citizen who the CIA knew was in Harithi’s vehicle but who was a target of the attack.
The Obama administration has spoken in broad terms about its authority to use military and paramilitary force against al-Qaeda and associated forces beyond “hot,” or traditional, battlefields such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Officials said
that certain belligerents aren’t shielded because of their citizenship.
“As a general matter, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target high-level leaders of enemy forces, regardless of their nationality, who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress in
its use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense,” an administration official said in a statement Friday.
President Obama and various administration officials referred to Aulaqi publicly for the first time Friday as the “external operations” chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a label that may be intended to underscore his status as an
operational leader who posed an imminent threat.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. The administration officials refused to disclose the exact legal analysis it used to authorize targeting Aulaqi, or how they considered any Fifth Amendment right to due process.
“‘Revenge’ Strike Feared After al-Awalki’s Death, ABC News, 30 September 2011
Top U.S. counterterrorism officials told ABC News that they worry about revenge attacks from Anwar al-Awlaki’s followers, and will keep security at “hair-trigger” response for the immediate future.
Before he was killed in a U.S. drone attack, the American-born cleric had enornmous success in recruiting American disciplines online. His anti-American sermons and radical online magazine, Inspire, urged violence against Americans -and published the bomb-making recipes that could help make it possible.
Al-Awlaki was also the commander of arguably the most active terror cell in the world – al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group behind the attempted Christmas Day 2009 bombing of a U.S. passenger jet, and the bombing attempt in 2010 of U.S. cargo plane flights out of Yemen. He was linked to 19 U.S. born jihadists through his fiery, inspiring rhetoric.
“We have to be concerned about the potential for retaliatory strikes,” one official said. “Al-Awlaki is a unique figure” and there is now an immediate dual problem to deal with. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -the terror organization’s most active division – is going to want to respond, and will at some point.
Federal law enforcement officials are meeting today to discuss the potential for reprisals and a bulletin to U.S. law enforcement is expected to go out as early as tonight. This statement today from New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly makes the worry plain.
“We know al-Awlaki had followers in the United States, including New York City, and for that reason we remain alert to the possibility that someone might want to avenge his death.” Kelly said. Of the 50 Americans charged in homegrown terror cases, 19 have either been directed by, or influenced by, al-Awlaki, Justice Department records show. In addition, a number of recent FBI “sting” operations have snared would-be homegrown terrorists inspired by al-Awlaki. Officials now fear that some of his
disciples here in the U.S. will plot their revenge.
“This is not the end of AQAP, but this is big, this is significant,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. “It is especially significant because of Alwaki’s role in radicalizing and recruiting Westerners.”
Awlaki was a TRAITOR to this country. And a terrorist. He gave up his citizenship, so excuse me if I don’t shed a tear over his demise.
As for reprisals, yeah yeah, bring it on. We are still waiting since OBL went fishing. Maybe they are still in the planning phase but that is why this needs to be treated as a war. No kid gloves. Go for the kill every time!
Aguila2011 raises several interesting questions. Courage, our laws, what it means to be an American, and strategy. Let’s give you some answers, in no particular order.
(1) “He gave up his citizenship”
I suggest you find new sources of information, as someone has lied to you. That is not correct.
(2) “Awlaki was a TRAITOR to this country”
What distinquishes the American system of government from tyranny or mob rule is that we follow laws. Article III Section 3 of the Constitution explicitly defines treason:
For a detailed analysis see the Cornell Law School website about the Constitution.
(3) “And a terrorist.”
Tyrants consider patriots to be those who believe what the government says and obey the government’s orders. In some circles of America today we see similar beliefs. It’s a sign of decay, that the Founders’ grand venture is dying.
Specifically, there is no public evidence that Awlaki is a terrorist, even under the expanded usage the US government has given that word. He gives sermons urging opposition to the US government and its programs, but those are exactly the kind of political and religous speech the First Ammendment was designed to protect.
The US government says that Awlaki has done many other things, for which they give no evidence. Unfortunately we know that since WWII US government official have frequently lied about such things. Blind belief despite this history is characteristic of a peon than a citizen, and on a large scale probably incompatible with our Constitutional system.
(4) “As for reprisals, yeah yeah, bring it on.”
The late John Boyd (Colonel, USAF) summarized grand strategy as gathering and strengthening friends while weakening enemies. This bravado — let’s fight the world — is fun for children but folly for a great nation. it encourages enemies and discourages allies (nobody wants to follow an idiot).
(5) “We are still waiting since OBL went fishing”
Perhaps AQ has staged no reprisals for the same reason they’ve done almost nothing for many years — because they no longer exist in meaningful form, sustained only by good PR by themselves and the US government (another of the exaggerated threats used to keep the US public fearful and obiedent).
There are AQ “franchises”, such as those fighting for purely nationalistic goals in Yemen and Iraq, but those pose little threat to the US. For more about this see Does al Qaeda still exist?
(a) What motivates someone like aguila2011? His lust for killing fellow citizens based on unsupported allegations of the government? His contempt for the Constitution? His belicose attutude towards the world? We can only guess. Here are two theories.
Is it fear? Fear of a changing nation and world? Displaced anxiety about social change in the US, the century-long evolution of US culture that has so worried each generation? Bed-wetting fear so that he’ll give away our hard-won freedoms in exchange for the illusion of safety?
Or is it identification with power? Has the US government grown so powerful that many Americans have changed their allegence from “us” to “them” (a historically common phenomenon). If there are many such then America may have passed a tipping point, and the Republic is in great peril.
(b) This comment by aguila2011 shows contempt for the US Constitution and overall system of government created by it. Who is the more serious enemy? Our external foes, mostly living in caves and huts in Somalia, the deserts of Yemen, and the mountains of Af-Pak. Or those pretending to be patriots while seeking to undermine the Constitution?
It is not clear from the public evidence that Alawki’s actions gave sufficient grounds to strip him of his US citizenship. From the US Department of State’s website:
“Al Qaeda Drone Attacks On US? Soon It Won’t Be So Far-Fetched“, CS Monitor, 30 September 2011
This is the kind of mental masturbation that I would expect from those with a legal?? bent. Your thinly veiled name calling and elitist reference sourcing may impress yourself and those of your ilk but your writing about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers lacks anything in the way of Common Sense. The Founding Fathers were all about Common Sense. It took years of American legal scholarship to turn such good thinking into a bowl of spaghetti.
That is exactly why it is far easier to take out our enemies with extreme prejudice outside this country than it is to endure years of legal maneuvering and publicity stunts since this legal system has devolved to offering criminals more rights than victims. It is not “contempt” for the Constitution of the U.S. Government that drives me, it is calling a spade a spade even if to a shyster like yourself, it benefits you to no end to parse the meaning of words like what the meaning is of the word “is.” If I have contempt for anything it is the legal system! What a farce it is.
Leave it to a lawyer to think that every problem requires a legal hammer. Just maybe there are other solutions that, heaven forbid, do not require such expertise because of the existential nature of the problem. So, sharpen your pencils boys. It will be fun watching the liberal justice system go after one of their own administrations.
(1) mental masturbation” “elitist reference sourcing ”
You call that a rebuttal? It’s grade school name calling, nothing more. However, your mental defenses against reason and evidence (it’s just “elitist reference sourcing”) are impressive, in a sad sort of way.
(2) “your writing about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers lacks anything in the way of Common Sense.”
This is the springboard for the rest of your comment. A fact-free comment. Especially in the absence of any evidence that we face a threat so terrifying that we must shred the Constitution.
(3) “Leave it to a lawyer”
Again we see your thinking, that concern for the foundation of our political regime is a concern only for lawyers — not citizens. People like yourself — with their self-evident contempt for the Consitution (the resp of your comment speaks more loudly than your denial) are IMO almost certainly a greater threat to the Republic than our enemies in cave around the world.
(4) For more information
(a) About al Qaeda:
(b) About our Islamic foes:
In your ego inflated opinion of yourself, “I” am a bigger threat to the Republic than someone like al Awlaki? What are you smoking? It is legal brainfarts like yourself that are a danger to everyone.
I come to this site to read what others are saying and to try to participate in the dialog. I try to expose myself to other forums which is part of my background as a marketing and business planning professional. I look at what is going on in society and the world and try to string pieces together into a big picture. Maybe I am ill equipped to verbally joust with you, as I am an engineer with an MBA from some of the top schools in the country. I may not be in Mensa, nor legally trained, but I am a proud American who has tried to educate himself beyond what schools provided. I am conservative but I think I represent more of the typical person whom you seem to deride. Why do I say this? Because in my opinion, most of the citizens in this country cannot measure up to your so-called “friend” of the Republic and according to you would be threats to it. The fact that half the country could vote for someone like Obama, with no credentials, proves the point.
This site describes itself as hosting opinions from across the political spectrum. It does not say it is limited to legal scholars. So if that is true, I would ask that you simply stop being so frick’in condescending, recognize that not everyone is a lawyer, much less a Constitutional Scholar, and try to educate those of us who are interested in learning.
Al Awlaki was an imminent threat to Americans around the world and to our allies. He was involved with and was fighting and leading Al Qaeda. And there is no way we would likely capture the guy in order to bring him to trial. I am simply glad the mofo is gone.
(1) “‘I’ am a bigger threat to the Republic than someone like al Awlaki?”
Let’s replay the tape. I said:
I referred explicitly to a group, of which you might be a member (guessing). And regarding this group as a threat is reasonable. A National Intelligence Estimate looked at its extreme members: “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment“, 7 April 2009.
(2) “legally trained … It does not say it is limited to legal scholars … recognize that not everyone is a lawyer, much less a Constitutional Scholar”
You seem to regard the plain text of the Constition as abtruse legal theory — not for discussion among citizens. That is a common viewpoint, evidence I cite in my Forecast of the Death of the American Constitution.
(3) “I think I represent more of the typical person whom you seem to deride”
Yes, people seeking to undermine our Constitutional system are, I suspect, increasing in numbers (there is quite a bit of polling data showing this).
(4) “I am conservative”
I disagree, based on the historical (and glorious) tradition of American conservative thought — and your comment. It was a brief comment, so this is just a guess. On the other hand, calling a horse a “car” does not make it so, no matter how many insist it is.
(5) “most of the citizens in this country cannot measure up to your so-called “friend” of the Republic”
Can you explain this? Pehaps with some evidence (quotes, cites, something). I don’t understand what this means.
(6) “The fact that half the country could vote for someone like Obama, with no credentials, proves the point.”
Again, this makes no sense to me. Obama’s credentials were thin (as I pointed out in February before the election: “As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern.”). But greater than Palin, who could easily have become President if the Republicans had won.
(7) “So if that is true, I would ask that you simply stop being so frick’in condescending,”
Provide a speciific quote, please. Most of my comment constited of facts (Alwaki did not give up his citizenship), quotes from the Constitution, and analysis. The last section described an internal danger to the Republic. You might identify with these people, but my warnings are hardly “condescending.”
(8) “try to educate those of us who are interested in learning.”
I focused on that with the first 1,500 posts. I still do, but have lost confidence that that is possible — or even meaningful. Now i have different objects (perhaps just as futile): Re-envisioning the FM website, becoming soldiers in the war for American’s future. Perhaps the authors on the FM website can do no more than provide a good view of events as America circles around the drain.
(9) “Al Awlaki was an imminent threat to Americans around the world and to our allies. He was involved with and was fighting and leading Al Qaeda”
As has been pointed our hundreds or thousands of times by experts of all sorts, there is little or no public evidence that this is so. That you regard as fact anything the government tells you is one of the more depressing aspects of modern America, and evidence that we may no longer be fit to govern ourselves. For large quantities of even more depressing evidence see the FM Reference Page America – how can we reform it?
(10) About discussions on the FM website
Most of the discussion on this website consists of exchanging facts and simple analysis. Personal comments — like “ego inflated opinion” — are discouraged. In my experience with the almost 17 thousand comments here, they are tossed out in lieu of real rebuttals. The only ones you’ll see in the comments are those directed at me (folks insulting other commenters are tossed out); there are thousads of them. I think you will find very few by me.
Noticeable increase in basic narcissism in the USA, coupled with these two nice sounding words leads to your basic Sociopathic/Psychopathic behaviors. DSM-IV-TR
Try a lack of a conscience or the old time idea of evil. No need for the slim coating of sugar. And never forget the construct called Political Science is just another offspring of basic humanities—Econ is also.
Watch out, folks they are everywhere and mainly at an increase the higher up the strata you wander.