June 29, 2010
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When it was confirmed last winter by then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair that the Obama administration had authorized the assassination of American citizens working with terrorist groups overseas, it appeared that no more than three Americans were being targeted in this manner.
In an interview last week with the Washington Times, however, Deputy White House National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John O. Brennan suggested the number might actually amount to "dozens."
"There are, in my mind, dozens of U.S. persons who are in different parts of the world, and they are very concerning to us," Brennan stated, "not just because of the passport they hold, but because they understand our operational environment here, they bring with them certain skills, whether it be language skills or familiarity with potential targets, and they are very worrisome, and we are determined to take away their ability to assist with terrorist attacks,"
"If an American person or citizen is in a Yemen or in a Pakistan or in Somalia or another place, and they are trying to carry out attacks against U.S. interests, they also will face the full brunt of a U.S. response," Brennan continued. "What we need to do is to apply the appropriate tool and the appropriate response."
Salon's Glenn Greenwald quickly seized upon Brennan's remarks as a fresh example of the extension of unrestrained presidential powers. "I've written at length about the reasons why targeting American citizens for assassination who are far away from a 'battlefield' is so odious and tyrannical, and I won't repeat those arguments here," Greenwald wrote. "Suffice to say -- and I'm asking this literally -- if you're someone who believes, or are at least willing to acquiesce to the claim, that the U.S. President has the power to target your fellow citizens for assassination without a whiff of due process, what unchecked presidential powers wouldn't you support or acquiesce to?"
As an expert in constitutional law, Greenwald's primary concern is with the implications of this policy for civil liberties and the potential circumvention of constitutional restraints on government action. What may be even more troubling is the extent to which Brennan's remarks reflect an expansion of US military activity into new areas of the globe, such as Yemen and Somalia.
Last month, the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti reported on a secret directive signed in September by General David Petraeus that "ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region."
According to Mazzetti, the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order "authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces. ... While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term."
Mazetti also suggested this order was behind the "surge of American military activity in Yemen that began three months later." That surge was the subject of the article by Dana Priest in the Washington Post last February which first revealed that American citizens had been targeted for assassination and which prompted the Blair confirmation.
"The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists," Priest wrote. "The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions."