U.S. justice department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad

In 2002 and 2003, assistant U.S. attorney general John Yoo, at the U.S. department of justice, authored now-infamous ‘torture memos’ providing legal justification for ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, which the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush would proceed to employ against ‘unlawful combatants,’ and in violation of the Geneva Conventions, according to many legal scholars (outside the Bush administration, at least).USflagPakistan Flag Iconsomaliayemen flag

Although we don’t know who wrote it or when it was written, there’s some parallelism in the ‘white paper’ from the justice department of U.S. president Barack Obama, made public today by NBC News, offering up the legal justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens who are senior operational leaders of al Qaeda or an associated force of al Qaeda.

Kudos to NBC News for obtaining the memo, which requires that any such U.S. citizen must be an ‘imminent’ threat, capture of the U.S. citizen must be ‘infeasible,’ and the strike must be conducted according to ‘law of war principles.’  Each of those is defined in a manner that’s not exactly narrow — for example, as Michael Isikoff at NBC notes:

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

The United States, first under the Bush administration, but at a vastly accelerated pace under the Obama administration, has used unmanned drones to attack targets in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (to say nothing of what we don’t know about their use in more conventional military theaters, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya over the past decade) — it seems reasonable to believe that drones could soon be used in Afghanistan after U.S. troops leave that country next year, and U.S. capability for drone use in Mali or elsewhere in north Africa would likewise not be a difficult task.

The leaked memo comes day before Congressional hearings on John Brennan’s appointment as Obama’s new director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

There’s not much I can add to what others have already said about the Obama administration memo, though it may well come to define this administration’s unique ‘addition’ to the expanding nature of executive power in the United States, to the detriment of U.S. constitutional civil liberties and even international law.

In September 2011, the United States attacked two U.S. citizens, Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan, in a drone attack in Yemen and, more perhaps troubling, killed Awlaki’s 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, also a U.S. citizen, in a subsequent attack.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Guardian in a long and thoughtful takedown of the leaked memo, takes special offense with the lack of due process for accused targets:

The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit….

This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.

In contrast, Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union has written a quick reaction that’s subdued in contrast to Greenwald’s response:

My colleagues will have more to say about the white paper soon, but my initial reaction is that the paper only underscores the irresponsible extravagance of the government’s central claim. Even if the Obama administration is convinced of its own fundamental trustworthiness, the power this white paper sets out will be available to every future president—and every “informed high-level official” (!)—in every future conflict. As I said to Isikoff, that’s truly a chilling thought.

Although the memo itself could well stand as an important turning point in the Obama administration’s controversial justification for executing U.S. citizens without due process, what seems even clearer is that as Obama’s second term unfolds, we can expect the continuation and proliferation of the use of drone attacks.  Given the zeal with which U.S. policymakers are apparently pursuing U.S. citizens in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, it seems certain that the Obama administration is even more audacious in its approach to the protection of non-U.S. citizens.

Will Wilkinson at The Economist has recently argued that the Obama administration’s drone program as a whole fails the Kantian principle of ‘universal law’ — i.e., that the United States might not enjoy being on the receiving end of its own logic:

The question Americans need to put to ourselves is whether we would mind if China or Russia or Iran or Pakistan were to be guided by the Obama administration’s sketchy rulebook in their drone campaigns. Bomb-dropping remote-controlled planes will soon be commonplace. What if, by another country’s reasonable lights, America’s drone attacks count as terrorism? What if, according to the general principles implicitly governing the Obama administration’s own drone campaign, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue turns out to be a legitimate target for another country’s drones? Were we to will Mr Obama’s rules of engagement as universal law, a la Kant, would we find ourselves in harm’s way? I suspect we would.

As such, stunning as today’s news is, it’s worth pausing to consider the effects on each of the three countries where the Obama administration is known to be operating drones — as critics note, the drone attacks could ultimately backfire on long-term U.S. interests by antagonizing Muslims outside the United States and potentially radicalizing non-U.S. citizens into supporting more radical forms of terrorism against the United States in the future.

Continue reading U.S. justice department memo justifies targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad

Center-left poised to block nationalist Storace’s comeback in Lazio

Statue of Caesar Augustus, Via dei Fori Imperiali

In addition to the national Italian elections later this month, with Pier Luigi Bersani leading the race to become Italy’s next prime minister, and in addition to the regional elections in Lombardy, where the centrosinistra (the center-left) is giving the centrodestra (the center-right) a strong challenge in the conservative heartland of northern Italy, the centrosinistra is the strong favorite to win power in Italy’s third-most populous region, Lazio.lazioItaly Flag Icon

Conservative Francesco Storace, leader of La Destra (The Right), a stridently nationalist party to the right of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), is hoping to return as the regional president of Lazio, following the resignation of the previous government.

The outgoing regional president, Renata Polverini, was elected in 2010 as a candidate of the PdL-backed centrodestra, after previously serving as president of the nationalist, right-wing Unione Generale del Lavoro (General Labor Union), a national Italian trade union.

Polverini, however, resigned in September 2012 after a funding scandal revealed that public funds were being used by members of Polverini’s government for private use.

So like in Lombardy, the key issue in the race is corruption, though her leftist predecessor, Piero Marrazzo, left office amid his own scandal when it was reported that he had been blackmailed by a video recording of Marrazzo cavorting with a transsexual prostitute.

In turn, Marrazzo’s predecessor, Storace, also left office amid the ‘Laziogate’ scandal, whereby Storace was accused of having abused his power to learn more about the members of a new neo-fascist party founded by Alessandra Mussolini.

Lazio has traditionally see-sawed between the left and the right — its capital, Rome, traditionally leans left, and the rest of the province leans right, though even Rome can shift as well.  Rome’s mayor since 2008, Gianni Alemanno, is a solidly right-wing PdL politician with ties to Storace and the far right.  In the 2010 regional elections, Polverini only narrowly defeated centrosinistra candidate Emma Bonnie, 51.1% to 48.3%.

The likely new regional president is Nicola Zingaretti (pictured below), who since 2008 has been president of the province of Rome, was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2008 and is a member of Italy’s mainstream center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Predictably, he’s run a campaign calling for more controls over regional spending and an end to the kind of expenses abuse that brought down Polverini.


Storace (pictured below with Berlusconi) remains one of Italy’s more controversial conservatives — in the 1990s and 2000s, he and Alemanno were the leaders of the social conservative wing of the now-defunct Alleanza Nazionale (AN, National Alliance).  As the National Alliance moved closer to the mainstream centrodestra in alliance with Berlusconi, Alemanno and Storace found themselves increasingly on the ‘social’ neo-fascist right.

Meanwhile, the National Alliance’s leader Gianfranco Fini moved even further to the center, became an increasingly important member of the Berlusconi government (i.e., foreign minister and later president of the lower house of the Italian Parliament). Ultimately, Fini abandoned Berlusconi, and is now closer to the pro-reform center than to Berlusconi’s coalition, let alone the far right of Alemanno and Storace.


Although both Alemanno and Storace have retained ties with Berlusconi and the PdL, Storace formed La Destra in 2007 and, in the 2008 Italian general election, partnered with the blatantly neo-fascist Fiamma Tricolore (Tricolour Flame).  The coalition won 2.43%, not enough to qualify for seats under Italy’s elections law.

The legacy of fascism is never incredibly far from the surface in Italian politics — to this day, despite the proliferation of many parties across the ideological spectrum, Italy’s two main leftist and rightist political traditions follow from the divisions between pro-republic fascists and communist ‘partisans’ that developed at the end of World War II and into Italy’s civil war from 1943 to 1945 (which also explains the uncharacteristically hostile relations between the Italian left and right).

That was on display just last week, when Berlusconi himself caused a firestorm by apparently praising fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

Continue reading Center-left poised to block nationalist Storace’s comeback in Lazio

First Past the Post: February 5


East and South Asia

A verdict is due in the war crimes trial of Abdul Quader Mollah, a leader of the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Pakistan’s political parties are getting down to brass tacks on a caretaker prime minister.

North America

Canada bids farewell to the penny (pictured above).

U.S. senator John McCain compares Iran’s president to a ‘monkey’ (to be fair, it’s not every day that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asks to be launched into space).

Greenland will go to the polls March 12.

Latin America / Caribbean

Argentina will get a two-month price freeze, in a sign that clearly no one is worried about inflation.

A regulation change for nightclubs in Brazil?

Colombia’s ELN reports taking two Germans hostage.


More on Nigeria’s sorpasso of South Africa by 2020.

ICTR genocide acquittals shock Rwanda.


Former UK energy minister and leading Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne pleads guilty — more background on the speeding scandal here.

Serbian prime minister Ivica Dačić is in trouble over a meeting with an organize crime leader.

The Financial Times weighs in on Iceland four years after its financial crisis.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy responds to accusations of receiving illicit funds with some perplexing answers.

Fallout from the attempted assassination of Armenian presidential candidate Paruyr Hayrikyan.

Middle East

Wrangling over Lebanon’s electoral system.

Yair Lapid, says an aide to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is drunk with power.

Netanyahu is now also looking to Tzipi Livni’s party as a potential coalition ally.


Suffragio has been voted one of four ‘finalists’ in the Duck of Minerva‘s contest for ‘Most Promising New Blog’ of 2013 — thanks to all of the readers who voted for my blog!

Does comparative politics suffer from confirmation bias? You might well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.