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ACLU: Admission of US Drone Strikes Does Nothing to Justify Program’s Legality

Common Dreams staff

President Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, gave a speech in Washington on Monday in which he admitted publicly that the US does, in fact, carry out lethal drone airstrikes in foreign nations with which the United States is not at war.  Despite that the drone program has long been an 'open secret,' it was the first formal, public admission made by the administration that the program exists.

Human rights groups, however, were not impressed, as Brennan argued that the clandestine program -- which has killed hundreds of innocent civilians over the last decade -- was "legal", "ethical" and "wise".

“Mr. Brennan supplies legal conclusions, not legal analysis," argued ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer. "We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program – particularly the memo that authorizes the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects. And the administration should release the evidence it relied on to conclude that an American citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, could be killed without charge, trial, or judicial process of any kind.”

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Inter Press Service: US Government Admits to Drone Attacks

The speech, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, marks the first official public discussion of the U.S.'s highly secretive drones programme. Overseen by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the programme has been stepped up significantly under President Barack Obama.

Brennan's presentation comes amidst a barrage of events marking the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden, with President Obama making much of the event as the 2012 presidential campaign heats up. According to Brennan, "President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about … using remotely piloted aircraft."

However, that newfound openness has not included an explanation of how potential drone targets are vetted.

Brennan defended the programme in part because, he said, it targets only those individuals who are known to pose a "significant threat" to the United States and constitute a "legitimate … lawful target".

But he refused to elaborate on how that process of scrutiny takes place. "How we identify an individual naturally involves intelligence sources and methods, which I will not discuss," Brennan said in prepared remarks.

That type of secrecy, say observers, leaves in the dark one of the most central issues at stake in the U.S. drone programme.

"Unfortunately, John Brennan's speech today did little to assure us that the U.S. is only targeting those individuals that are directly participating in hostilities against the United States, perform a continuous combat function with Al Qaeda or its affiliates that are targeting us, or pose an imminent threat of harm to the United States," Daphne Eviatar, a lawyer and researcher with Human Rights First, told IPS.

"Those are the legal requirements for any targeted killing in this context. Brennan, like others in the administration before him, said that the United States is following international law without explaining how it decides whether the individuals or groups of people targeted meet the legal requirements."

On Sunday, Brennan had already made waves by admitting publicly that civilian deaths are an inevitable part of counterterrorism operations. That issue strikes at the heart of much of the criticism that has built up against the U.S. use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles over the past half-decade.

"For a long time, the narrative was that drones were only killing militants," Shazad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer, told an international conference on drone warfare that took place in Washington over the weekend.

In Waziristan, in western Pakistan, he reported, "more than 3,000 people have been killed in 300 drone strikes." Given the lack of independent monitoring, it is unclear what percentage of those people were civilians.

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ACLU National Security Experts Warn Drone Program is Unlawful and Dangerous

In a speech this afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, John Brennan insisted the targeted strikes are a “wise choice” and “legal” and within the boundaries of international law. However, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said Brennan’s statement did not go far in explaining how the program passed constitutional muster.

“This is an important statement – first because it includes an unambiguous acknowledgement of the targeted killing program and second because it includes the administration’s clearest explanation thus far of the program’s purported legal basis.” Jaffer said.

“But Mr. Brennan supplies legal conclusions, not legal analysis. We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program – particularly the memo that authorizes the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects. And the administration should release the evidence it relied on to conclude that an American citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, could be killed without charge, trial, or judicial process of any kind.”

Brennan maintained the Obama administration was committed to transparency when it came to deciding who would be subject to lethal drone strikes. But Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, said the program is both unconstitutional and overly broad.

“We continue to believe, based on the information available, that the program itself is not just unlawful but dangerous. This statement makes clear that the administration is treating legal restrictions on the use of force as questions of preference. Moreover, it is dangerous to characterize the entire planet as a battlefield,” Shamsi said.

“It is dangerous to give the President the authority to order the extrajudicial killing of any person – including any American – he believes to be a terrorist. The administration insists that the program is closely supervised, but to propose that a secret deliberation that takes place entirely within the executive branch constitutes ‘due process’ is to strip the Fifth Amendment of its essential meaning.”

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