A few weeks ago Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair spoke to the House Intelligence Committee on the issue of targeting US citizens abroad.
For years, the “hunt and destroy” nature of US counterterrorism efforts overseas has drawn criticism from some who consider the tactic a form of targeted assassinations, rather than lawful warfare. But the stigma around the use of this tactic becomes even more complicated as the number of US citizens traveling abroad to engage in terrorist activities increases.
Director Blair’s comments came on the heels of what was, at the time, thought to be a fatal airstrike on Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki is of Yemeni descent, but was born in the US and therefore has US citizenship. He has spent time both in the US and abroad as an Imam and has ties to some of the 9/11 hijackers and to Malik Nadal Hasan. The FBI has labeled him a “senior al-Qaeda recruiter.”
Blair’s intent was to calm the committee and citizens. The US will not indiscriminately target US citizens — only those who are really terrorists. He specifically sought to pacify objectors by mentioning that the DoD and all US agencies “follow a set of defined policy and legal procedures that are very carefully observed.” They have to ask permission.
Unlike many people, my objection to Blair’s comments does not lie in the fact that the US government can target a US citizen abroad who is engaged in terrorist activities. It lies in a deep rooted concern that we have begun to stratify “citizenship.” Viscerally, a Yemeni man who happens to be born in New York but moves back to Yemen at age 2 and becomes the leader of a large terrorist cell is a very different type of citizen than a man who owns a ranch in Kansas and has lived in the same house for 60 years. And it does seem sensible to give one more due process than the other. But that is a very, very dangerous road to walk down.
In a case less clear than al-Awlaki’s the prospect of the current system would be particularly troubling. At some point along the line of targeting requests someone will make a decision – and that decision will effectively be made by asking the following question: “is this person enough of a US citizen to protect?”
What person or process is capable of making that decision?