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How America Went Rogue: What We All Need to Know About Our Government's Shadow Wars

Reagan’s shadow government was a disaster, but it was a pygmy compared with Obama’s.

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Despite President Obama’s denials, the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found that not only are civilians routinely killed by US drone strikes in northern Pakistan; often people rushing to the scene of a strike to help the wounded are killed by a second launch. The BIJ estimates that the United States has killed on the order of 3,000 people in 319 drone strikes, some 600 of them civilian bystanders and 174 of those, children. Some 84 percent of all such strikes were launched after Obama came to office.

Moreover, the drone operations are classified. When asked about strikes, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refuses to confirm or deny that they have occurred. The drones cannot be openly debated in Congress or covered in any detail by the US media. Therefore, they cannot be the subject of a national political debate, except in the abstract. The Congressional intelligence committees are briefed on the program, but it is unlikely that any serious checks and balances can operate in so secret and murky a realm, and the committees’ leaders have complained about the inadequacy of the information they are given. No hearing could be called about them, since the drone strikes cannot be publicly confirmed. Classified operations create gods, above the law.

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The WikiLeaks State Department cables reveal that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh secretly authorized US drone strikes, pledging to take the blame from their angry publics. But a private conversation with a single leader, repeatedly denied thereafter in public, is hardly a treaty. The only international legal doctrine (recognized in the United Nations charter) invoked to justify drone strikes is the right of the United States to defend itself from attack. But it cannot be demonstrated that any drone strike victims had attacked, or were in a position to attack, the United States. Other proposed legal justifications also falter.

The doctrine of “hot pursuit” does not apply in Yemen or Somalia, and often does not apply in Pakistan, either. The only due process afforded those killed from the air is an intelligence assessment, possibly based on dubious sources and not reviewed by a judge. Those targeted are typically alleged to belong to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or some kindred group, and apparently thought to fall under the mandate of the September 14, 2001, Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force by the president against those behind the September 11 attacks and those who harbored them. The AUMF could probably legitimately be applied to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda faction, which still plots against the United States. But a new generation of Muslim militants has arisen, far too young to be implicated in 9/11 and who may have rethought that disastrous strategy.

Increasingly, moreover, “Al Qaeda” is a vague term somewhat arbitrarily applied by Washington to regional groups involved in local fundamentalist politics, as with the Partisans of Sharia, the Yemeni militants who have taken over the city of Zinjibar, or expatriate Arab supporters in Pakistan of the Haqqani network of Pashtun fighters -- former allies of the United States in their struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. How long will the AUMF be deployed in the Muslim world to authorize cowboy tactics from the skies? There is no consistency, no application of the rule of law. Guilt by association and absence of due process are the hallmarks of shadow government. In September the Obama administration used a drone to kill a US citizen in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki. But since the Supreme Court had already ruled, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), that the AUMF could not authorize military tribunals for Guantánamo detainees that sidestepped civil due process -- and since the subsequent Military Commissions Act of 2006 allows such tribunals only for aliens -- it is hard to see how Awlaki’s right to a trial could be summarily abrogated. Two weeks after he was killed, his 16-year-old son, also a US citizen and less obviously a menace to the superpower, was also killed by a drone.

 
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