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How Droning American Citizens Damages Our Laws

Abdullah al-Shami may be about to achieve a very strange kind of victory through martyrdom.

So far as we know, Al-Shami isn’t on the verge of a suicide bombing or self-immolation. If he dies in the coming weeks, it will likely be at the hand of another. Well, hand might be putting it strongly, since the hand that presses the button that looses the missile from the drone that kills him may be halfway across the globe. But if the bomb lands true, al-Shami will be the fifth American citizen assassinated by his government in the War on Terror.

The location of the person killing him will be as mysterious as his own origins. Although it is now public knowledge that the Obama administration is debating whether the man known by this nom de guerre meets their own classified criteria for assassination, al-Shami’s real name, place of birth, and biography to this point have all been kept secret. The most the New York Times was able to cobble together about his life is this:

The F.B.I. investigated Mr. Shami and determined that he had been born in the United States, but that he had left as a young child and had not maintained any ties to the country. In the years since then, Mr. Shami worked his way up the ranks of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, his ascent aided by his marriage to the daughter of a top Qaeda leader. Last year, he appears to have risen to become one of Al Qaeda’s top planners for operations outside Pakistan, including plots against American troops in Afghanistan.

“We have clear and convincing evidence that he’s involved in the production and distribution of I.E.D.’s,” said one senior administration official, referring to improvised explosive devices, long the leading killer of American troops in Afghanistan.

Improvised explosive devices are intended to kill American troops. They’re deployed either tactically, for the sake of frustrating the objectives of an enemy force, or cathartically, out of the desire to wound and destroy, regardless of whether it advances a military objective. President Bush would often characterize al-Qaeda as motivated by a desire to destroy our freedoms and ideals. Stretching our laws to permit the droning of American citizens would seem to do more damage to American ideals than an entire shipment of IEDs.

While the armed forces and the C.I.A. have systematically picked off high-ranking leaders in al-Qaeda, to the point where nationalist factions blithely ignore the orders of their higher ups, civil liberties law at home has been subject to a barrage of Justice Department memos, FISA court opinions, and executive orders, many of them kept as secret as any military operation, on the same justification: we can’t afford to tip our hand to the enemy.

According to the Times, the debate over al-Shami’s death has been driven as much by logistical concerns as by ethical or legal scruples. Obama has been working to hand over responsibility for drone assassinations to the Pentagon. This would put drone program under a few more legal restrictions, but free the United States to claim responsibility for strikes and make other disclosures that the CIA can’t.  However, the Pentagon has no authority to kill anyone in Pakistan, where al-Shami is rumored to be hiding.

If the President makes an exception to allow the CIA to conduct this strike, it will be yet another jury-rigged change to our legal system, meant to secure the short-term objective of killing the enemy, while possibly endangering the security and trustworthiness of the government we are defending from men like al-Shami.

about the author

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of two books: Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option. Her writing has appeared in The American Interest, First Things, and The Washington Post. You can follow her at leahlibresco.com.

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