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

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The case, Nasser al-Awlaki v. Barack Obama, was argued before U.S. District Judge John Bates in November 2010. The transcript from the hearing reads like a Kafkaesque parody of a trial. The government's lawyer, Douglas Letter, repeatedly invoked the privilege of state secrecy, arguing that "as far as the allegations there is a kill list, et cetera, we're not confirming or denying." He also observed that Anwar would no longer be under the threat of "lethal force" if he turned himself in – an implicit non-acknowledgment that al-Awlaki was on a secret kill list. Jameel Jaffer, a lawyer for the ACLU, pushed back against the government's case, worrying that the president of the United States was being granted the sole and expansive power to decide "the question of whether an American falls within the category of people who can be assassinated." In the hearing's most surreal moment, the judge dismissed the case, ruling that Nasser had no legal standing to file a lawsuit on his son's behalf until Anwar was actually killed.

The Obama administration has repeatedly refused to release the secret Justice Department memo that outlines its legal justification for the attack on al-Awlaki. But on March 5th, in a speech at Northwestern University, Attorney General Eric Holder finally broke the official silence. A targeted killing against a U.S. citizen is legal, he said, only if the citizen cannot be captured, poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S., and qualifies as a legitimate target consistent with the laws of war. "When such individuals take up arms against this country and join Al Qaeda in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans," Holder declared, "there may be only one realistic and appropriate response."

Brushing aside criticisms from civil libertarians, Holder rejected the idea that the due-process provision of the Constitution requires the president to get permission from a federal court before killing a U.S. citizen. And in a brazenly political double standard, he insisted that Congress had given the president the go-ahead to use lethal methods under a resolution passed a week after September 11th that authorizes the use of all necessary force to prevent future acts of terrorism against the United States – the exact same resolution that the Bush administration used to justify its illegal policy of torture and extraordinary rendition.

In the end, it appears, the administration has little reason to worry about any backlash from its decision to kill an American citizen – one who had not even been charged with a crime. A recent poll shows that most Democrats overwhelmingly support the drone program, and Congress passed a law in February that calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to "accelerate the integration of unmanned aerial systems" in the skies over America. Drones, which are already used to fight wildfires out West and keep an eye on the Mexican border, may soon be used to spy on U.S. citizens at home: Police in Miami and Houston have reportedly tested them for domestic use, and their counterparts in New York are also eager to deploy them. Given the NYPD's record of civil rights abuses, it's not hard to envision drones buzzing high above Zuccotti Park to provide surveillance on Occupy Wall Street, or being used to surreptitiously monitor the activities of Muslim-American students.

Many who oversee the drone program, in fact, seem to have little but contempt for those who worry about the poten­tial dangers presented by drones. At a human rights seminar at Columbia University last summer, John Radsan, a former attorney for the CIA, admitted that the agency has no interest in debating the legal niceties of drone strikes. "The CIA is laughing at you guys," he told the assembled human rights lawyers. "You're worried about international law, and the CIA is laughing." A White House official I spoke with is even more dismissive. "If Anwar al-Awlaki is your poster boy for why we shouldn't do drone strikes," the official tells me, "good fucking luck."

If the targeted killing of al-­Awlaki doesn't inspire sympathy, given his alleged connections to Al Qaeda, then consider the case of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy from Pakistan. In April 2010, one of Tariq's cousins was killed in a drone strike. Believing that his cousin was innocent, and not involved in any insurgent activities, Tariq joined a group of tribal elders last October at a meeting in Islamabad organized by Reprieve, the human rights group. Neil Williams, a volunteer for Reprieve, spent an hour speaking with Tariq at the meeting.

"We started talking about soccer," Williams recalls. "He told me he played for New Zealand. The teams they played with from the village had all taken names from football clubs, like Brazil or Manchester United."

Tariq and other teenagers at the meeting told Williams how they lived in fear of drones. They could hear them at night over their homes in Waziristan, buzzing for hours like aerial lawn mowers. An explosion could strike at any moment, anywhere, without warning. "Tariq really didn't want to be going back home," Williams says. "He'd hear the drones three or four times a day."

Three days after the conference, Williams received an e-mail. Tariq had been killed in a drone strike while he was on his way to pick up his aunt. It appears that he wasn't the intended target of the strike: Those who met Tariq suspect he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially since his 12-year-old cousin was also killed in the blast.

The Obama administration has no comment on the killing of Tariq Aziz, even though his death raises the most significant question of all. Drones offer the government an advanced and precise technology in its War on Terror – yet many of those killed by drones don't appear to be terrorists at all. In fact, according to a detailed study of drone victims compiled by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, at least 174 of those executed by drones were under the age of 18 – in other words, children. Estimates by human rights groups that include adults who were likely civilians put the toll of innocent victims at more than 800. U.S. officials hotly dismiss such figures – "bullshit," one senior administration official told me. Brennan, one of Obama's top counterterrorism advisers, absurdly insisted last June that there hadn't been "a single civilian" killed by drones in the previous year.

For Nasser al-Awlaki, who lost his teenage grandson to a predator drone, such denials are almost as shocking as the administration's deliberate decision to wage a remote-control war that would inevitably result in the deaths of innocent civilians. "I could not believe America could do this – especially President Obama, who I liked very much," he says. "When he was elected, I thought he would solve all the problems of the world."

Michael Hastings is a Rolling Stone contributing editor and the author of The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Story of America's War in Afghanistan.

This story is from the April 26th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

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