A leaked Justice Department white paper reveals a draft legal framework which describes in detail the targeting of American citizens by drones without due process or proof of specific intent to harm. That's terrifying.
The document, obtained by NBC News, explains that targets believed to be "senior operational leader[s] of al-Qa'ida" or an "associated force" who "pose an imminent threat" can be targeted by US drones without the need for excessive quantities of paperwork or due process.
The memo goes on to explain that an "informed, high-level" official of the U.S. government must determine that the target has "recently" been 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 words "recently" and "activities" aren't defined, giving unlimited interpretive scope.
Further limitations do apply; before the government can eradicate an American citizen with a fiery sky-death, capturing the person in question must be "infeasible," and terminating the target must be performed according to the "law of war principles." Well, that's comforting, then.
Less so is the vaguely defined use of the word "imminence;" the report explains that it "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." Which seems to undermine some of the guidelines that go before it.
All of this suggests that this draft legal framework is very much a framework—and a relatively flimsy one at that. Of course, this is a leaked draft and so in no way final, but it does reveal the kinds of attitudes which are shaping the Obama administration's drone-based counterterrorism campaigns. Specifically, the attitude that opening fire on a person of suspicion, without a court hearing or much more than a senior official's say-so, is totally acceptable against our own people. And while it presumably applies to American expats, there's no indication it couldn't also apply to our own soil.
Even if drone strikes were the most precise form of assassination in the world, this would fly in the face of what's generally accepted to be everything good about the Constitution. Throw in the fact that drone strikes are generally messy, collateral-packed events, and you've got yourself unlimited potential for tragedy wrought against Americans by the American government. Even if this white paper is nothing more than an intellectual exercise, it's a horrifying one. Go read the full report over at NBC News. It's a stunner. [NBC News via Verge]