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The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret

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In the end, though, the CIA lost the larger battle over drones. After Donilon completed the White House review, Ambassador Munter and the State Department were granted more say in decisions over the timing and targeting of drone strikes. Although the move was intended to provide more civilian oversight of covert attacks, it outraged human rights activists, who blasted the White House for putting a U.S. ambassador in the position of signing off on extralegal death warrants in a foreign country. "Giving a civilian diplomat veto power on an assassination campaign is incredible," says Clive Stafford Smith, the executive director of Reprieve, a human rights group that is suing over the use of drones. "Can you imagine what the reaction would be if the Pakistani ambassador in Washington was overseeing a campaign of targeted killing in America?"

It remains unclear what role the White House itself plays in selecting the names that wind up placed on the kill lists. Some U.S. officials have described a secret panel within the National Security Council that keeps a list of targets to kill or capture. The panel, which has no paperwork authorizing its existence, is said to involve top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was a staunch advocate of the Bush administration's decision to torture prisoners at Guantánamo. Other U.S. officials familiar with the targeting process say the idea of a secret panel overstates the case. The NSC, they insist, isn't involved in the vast majority of drone strikes on a daily basis – especially the majority of "signature strikes" launched by the CIA. That means the CIA still has broad authority to curate its own kill lists, with limited oversight from the White House. As one former CIA official put it: "The NSC decides when the president needs to be involved – and what fingerprints to leave, if any."

The 72-year-old man, a Fulbright scholar who spent 11 years living in New Mexico and Minnesota, had been expecting the news of his son's death. After all, it had already been falsely reported several times over the past two years. So Nasser al-Awlaki couldn't claim to be shocked on a Friday afternoon last fall when a cable news outlet reported that his worst fear had finally been realized: His son Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and alleged member of Al Qaeda, had been killed on September 30th, 2011 – the first American to be specifically targeted by a drone strike.

In the days following the killing, Nasser and his wife received a call from Anwar's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had run away from home a few weeks earlier to try to find his now-deceased father in Yemen. "He called us and gave us his condolences," Nasser recalls. "We told him to come back, and he promised he would. We really pressed him, me and his grandmother."

The teenage boy never made it home. Two weeks after that final conversation, his grandparents got another phone call from a relative. Abdulrahman had been killed in a drone strike in the southern part of Yemen, his family's tribal homeland. The boy, who had no known role in Al Qaeda or any other terrorist operation, appears to have been another victim of Obama's drone war: Abdulrahman had been accompanying a cousin when a drone obliterated him and seven others. The suspected target of the killing – a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – is reportedly still alive; it's unclear whether he was even there when the strike took place.

The news devastated the family. "My wife weeps every day and every morning for her grandson," says Nasser, a former high-ranking member of the Yemenite government. "He was a nice, gentle boy who liked to swim a lot. This is a boy who did nothing against America or against anything else. A boy. He is a citizen of the United States, and there are no reasons to kill him except that he is Anwar's son."

Anwar al-Awlaki was born in 1971 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Nasser was earning a master's degree in agricultural economics from New Mexico State University. As an adult, he lived in Colorado and Virginia, becoming an imam at an Islamic center in Falls Church. After September 11th, he began peddling the most noxious brands of jihadist rhetoric, coming very close to calling for attacks on the West. At least one of the 9/11 hijackers was said to have visited his mosque. He had left the United States for good in 2002, his father says, because he'd been "interrogated many times" by the FBI about his connections to terrorist groups.

Once in Yemen, Anwar made a series of propaganda videos for Al Qaeda that were widely viewed on YouTube. According to U.S. authorities, he also communicated directly with two individuals who committed acts of terrorism, including Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army officer accused of gunning down 13 people and wounding 32 others at Fort Hood in 2009, and Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab, the so-called Underwear Bomber. After a two-year manhunt, the CIA tracked Anwar down and launched a drone strike that killed him and another American citizen, Samir Khan, along with two others. The day al-Awlaki was killed, President Obama hailed his death as another victory in the War on Terror, calling it a "major blow" and a "significant milestone."

Anwar's son, who was born in Denver, had also grown up in America. (After his death, U.S. officials claimed he was 20 or 21, until his family provided his birth certificate from a Colorado hospital.) He had left the United States with his father at the age of seven, and lived with his grandparents in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Like others in the southern part of the country, he lived in terror of the constant buzz of drones overhead. "Every night, they don't sleep," says his grandfather. "They make unbelievable noise, and people are suffering."

Based on press reports, Nasser had suspected for more than a year that his son had been put on a kill list by the Obama administration. What made Anwar al-Awlaki unique was that he was still an American citizen – a status that posed a legal and ethical dilemma for lawyers at the White House and the State Department. The administration lawyers – many of whom had been outspoken critics of George W. Bush's policies against terrorists – spent months figuring out how to justify the killing of a U.S. citizen. By the summer of 2010, two attorneys in the Justice Department – Marty Lederman and David Barron – had authored a secret memo, select portions of which were leaked to the Times. An American, they argued, was eligible for targeted killing if he met certain criteria that the administration refused to reveal. The top legal adviser to the State Department, Harold Koh, also defended the policy of targeted killing. "It is the considered view of the administration," he declared in a speech in March 2010, "that targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war."

The irony that Koh – a former dean of Yale Law School who spent years lambasting George W. Bush for violating international law with his policies of torture and extraordinary rendition – now proclaimed the right of his own administration to assassinate an American citizen was not lost on either his friends or his critics. "Many of the people like Harold Koh and Marty Lederman who were criticizing Bush, and who should be criticizing targeted killings now, went into the Obama administration," says Mary Ellen O'Connell, a law professor at Notre Dame who has known Koh for 25 years. "They are close friends to those in the administration – and it's hard to criticize your friends." Says another lawyer who knows Koh well: "Harold turned out to be someone who put his personal relationships with Clinton and Obama ahead of the law. That has been a surprise to us." Rizzo, the CIA attorney who signed off on Bush's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, is even blunter in mocking the Obama administration for its intellectual dishonesty on drone strikes. "Stalking and killing a big-name terrorist evidently is less legally risky, and is viewed in many quarters as far less morally objectionable, than capturing and aggressively interrogating one," Rizzo wrote in a journal published by the right-wing Hoover Institution.

For Nasser al-Awlaki, the news that his son was on a list for targeted killing was a matter of life and death. In August 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Nasser to prevent the U.S. government from killing his son – the first legal action taken against the drone program in the United States. The ACLU argued that "a targeted killing policy under which individuals are added to kill lists after a bureaucratic process and remain on these lists for months at a time plainly goes beyond the use of lethal force as a last resort to address imminent threats." The policy also goes "beyond what the Constitution and international law permit," the ACLU alleged.

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