WASHINGTON – The case of an American citizen and suspected member of al-Qaida who is allegedly planning attacks on U.S. targets overseas underscores the complexities of President Barack Obama’s new stricter targeting guidelines for the use of deadly drones.
The CIA drones watching him cannot strike because he’s a U.S. citizen. The Pentagon drones that could are barred from the country where he’s hiding, and the Justice Department has not yet finished building a case against him.
Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.
Two of the officials described the man as an al-Qaida facilitator who has been directly responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. citizens overseas and who continues to plan attacks against them that would use improvised explosive devices.
The officials said the suspected terrorist is well-guarded and in a fairly remote location, so any unilateral attempt by U.S. troops to capture him would be risky and even more politically explosive than a U.S. missile strike.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday he would not comment on specific operations and pointed to Obama’s comments in the major counterterrorism speech last May about drone policy.
“When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team,” Carney said, quoting from Obama’s speech last year.
Under new guidelines Obama addressed in the speech made to calm anger overseas at the extent of the U.S. drone campaign, lethal force must only be used “to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.” The target must also pose “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” the legal definition of catching someone in the act of plotting a lethal attack.
The Associated Press agreed to withhold the name of the country where the suspected terrorist is believed to be because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterrorism operations.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., complained last week that a number of terrorist suspects were all but out of reach under the administration’s new rules that limit drone strikes based on the target’s nationality or location. Two U.S. officials said the Justice Department review of the American suspected terrorist started last fall.
The senior administration official confirmed that the Justice Department was working to build a case against the suspected terrorist. The official said, however, the legal procedure being followed is the same as when the U.S. killed militant cleric and former Virginia resident Anwar al-Awlaki by drone in Yemen in 2011, long before the new targeted killing policy took effect.
The official said the president could make an exception to his policy and authorize the CIA to strike on a onetime basis or authorize the Pentagon to act despite the possible objections of the country in question.
The Justice Department, the Pentagon and the CIA declined to comment.
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