Blockbuster Reporting on Drones

To ease off my Times bashing for a moment, they have an excellent, deeply reported piece today on the Obama administration’s drone policy. It’s the most comprehensive account yet of the internal decision-making process that led to the killing of three American citizens, two by accident. I was particularly fascinated by this account:

David Barron and Martin Lederman had a problem. As lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, it had fallen to them to declare whether deliberately killing Mr. Awlaki, despite his citizenship, would be lawful, assuming it was not feasible to capture him. The question raised a complex tangle of potential obstacles under both international and domestic law, and Mr. Awlaki might be located at any moment.

According to officials familiar with the deliberations, the lawyers threw themselves into the project and swiftly completed a short memorandum. It preliminarily concluded, based on the evidence available at the time, that Mr. Awlaki was a lawful target because he was participating in the war with Al Qaeda and also because he was a specific threat to the country. The overlapping reasoning justified a strike either by the Pentagon, which generally operated within the Congressional authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda, or by the C.I.A., a civilian agency which generally operated within a “national self-defense” framework deriving from a president’s security powers…

But as months passed, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman grew uneasy. They told colleagues there were issues they had not adequately addressed, particularly after reading a legal blog that focused on a statute that bars Americans from killing other Americans overseas. In light of the gravity of the question and with more time, they began drafting a second, more comprehensive memo, expanding and refining their legal analysis and, in an unusual step, researching and citing dense thickets of intelligence reports supporting the premise that Mr. Awlaki was plotting attacks.

Marty Lederman was actually one of the first bloggers I ever read regularly, when he was posting at Balkinization lambasting the Bush administration for legal overreach.

In any case, the whole piece is worth a read. And in what I’m sure is unrelated news, the Air Force has stopped reporting data on drone strikes in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: For a different, extremely skeptical take on this piece, see Marcy Wheeler.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is national correspondent for the Week, and a former web editor for the Washington Monthly.