Botched CIA operation is a reminder: Still no transparency around drones


At his press briefing today, White House press secretary Josh Earnest faced tough questioning from reporters about legal questions surrounding the CIA drone strike that inadvertently killed two hostages, including one American.

The exchange neatly captured a galling truth about the targeted killing program: There is still woefully insufficient transparency around it, both when it comes to the operations of the program itself and to its legal rationale. During the exchange, Earnest would not confirm that the operation was even a drone strike. And, according to Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union, even the legal rationale for the administration protocol that Earnest himself referred to by way of justifying the operation remains secret.

The strike was aimed at a gathering of Al Qaeda figures, and it took place in January, but the reporting indicates that it wasn’t until weeks later that officials discovered that two kidnapped aid workers — Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto — had been killed in it. The strike also killed Ahmed Farouq, an American citizen and member of al-Qaeda. Another American and longtime al-Qaeda member — Adam Gadahn — was killed in another drone strike at around the same time.

As you may recall, the question of whether the administration has the legal right to kill suspected terrorists who are also American citizens recently attracted some attention in Washington. The administration has clarified that it retains the legal right to target American citizens abroad if he or she cannot be apprehended and is “engaged in activities” that pose “an imminent threat to U.S. persons or interests.”

At today’s press briefing, the questioning started on this topic and ended in an equally murky place. ABC News’ Jonathan Karl pressed White House spokesman Josh Earnest on whether the killing of the two American-citizens-turned-terrorists was legal under the administration’s own stated rationale — did they pose an imminent threat of attack? Earnest replied that the drone attacks were not specifically targeting those two Americans. He said that the attacks — one of which killed Weinstein — were targeted more generally towards al-Qaeda “compounds, with the intent of taking al-Qaeda fighters and leaders off the battlefield.”

Earnest added that “under the protocol the president has established,” it’s “permissible” for the United States to “carry out operations against al-Qaeda compounds.”

But Jameel Jaffer, a senior attorney with the ACLU, points out that the legal rationale for that same protocol is contained in a series of legal memos on drones that remain classified. (The memo that detailed the rationale for the killing of American citizens that are terror suspects was released in redacted form, but other drone memos remain secret.) Result: It’s impossible to evaluate..

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