By: Liban Yousuf
President Obama hopes that his administration will be remembered as an administration that championed human rights. A little more than a year ago, President Obama repealed the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell “ policy allowing LGBT members of the military to serve openly. Most recently, the Obama Administration has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court affirming their stance that California’s Prop 8 is an affront to the civil rights of Americans. While President Obama has been championing civil rights issues domestically, his administration has been working hard to destroy the civil rights of citizens overseas.
Drones have been President Obama’s weapons of choice in the War on Terror. According to most estimates, President Obama has used over 400 drone strikes to target high profile individuals since taking office. That is 50 times more than President Bush ordered during his term in office. I understand that there are groups out there that pose a threat to our national security, so what’s the problem? The problem is President Obama’s drone strikes have also been targeting American citizens without due process.
In September 2011, drone strikes killed Anwar Al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was believed to be a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda who acted as a spiritual advisor to the Christmas day underwear bomber, as well as Major Nidal Hasan who carried out the tragic shootings at Fort Hood in 2009. What made this drone strike unique was that Al-Awlaki was the first American citizen to be included on the “kill or capture” list after President Obama signed an order in 2010. Al-Awlaki was born and raised in the United States then moved to Yemen with his family before moving back to the United States where he attended Colorado State University. Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also an American born citizen, was killed in another drone strike just two weeks later. Both Al-Awlaki and his son were killed without trial and without being charged with any crime.
Earlier last month, a confidential memo from the Justice Department was leaked, outlining the legal arguments for targeting American citizens with ties to Al-Qaeda in drone strikes. The memo states that attacks against American citizens who are “operational leaders” of Al-Qaeda are a “lawful act of self-defense.” Although the Obama Administration claims attacks are carried out only with an imminent threat, the memo states an imminent threat “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.” This vague language should be a cause of concern. In addition to establishing the government’s claim of the authority to target American citizens by drone strikes, the memo’s vague language also gives the government room to maneuver around its ambiguous limitations.
As if the targeting of American citizens without due process and the ambiguous limitations to when these attacks can be carried out isn’t troublesome enough, President Obama has been resolved in keeping these strikes as confidential as possible, with no oversight. During his State of the Union address on February 12th, just days after the DOJ memo was leaked, President Obama pledged greater transparency regarding the drone strikes carried out by his administration. The following day, the Obama Administration released eleven memos, regarding targeted killings, to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. On the same day, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a member of the committee, confirmed that the Obama Administration has failed to disclose seven other similar memos. A week later, the Obama Administration stated that it would not disclose the number of classified memos it has regarding targeted drone attacks. However, on Tuesday, after numerous requests from the Senate committee and with the looming threat that the Senate would not confirm the nomination of John Brennan as the Director of the CIA, the Obama Administration finally agreed to disclose the remaining memos.
President Obama is setting a dangerous precedent with his attacks on the rights of due process. The United States is facing attacks from groups and organizations that are well hidden from the traditional reach of the military, and these drone strikes might just be a necessary evil. However, if the President carries out these types of attacks, especially when it involves American citizens, there must be more transparency and greater oversight. Unfortunately, the President has proven that he is not dedicated to keeping his promise. Rather than provide the Senate committee with the memos from the Office of Legal Counsel after he pledged greater transparency, the President simply doubled down on the secrecy surrounding the drone program. With the lives at Americans at stake on shaky legal authority, the President must ensure that his dedication to civil rights is not just rhetoric, if he wants his administration to leave its legacy as one that drove the US forward.