Ultimately, the most serious challenges to US drone policy will not come from the protests of international human rights organisations or public denunciations by the governments in whose territories these strikes are carried out. The US has always been resistant to outside criticism of its policies, and such criticism has never, in the past, forced a policy rethink. Anti-drone voices also fall short when it comes to suggesting an alternative to drone strikes, expect perhaps by arguing that conflict itself should be avoided, which is an unrealistic view at best and utopian at worst. Moreover, the countries in which drone strikes are carried out, like Pakistan, protest only for domestic public consumption while privately encouraging the strikes and even allowing the use of their territories for bases from which the drone strikes are carried out.
If any checks will thus be imposed on the use of drones by the United States, it will most likely be as a result of domestic pressure exerted upon the state through the US judicial system. This is the context in which the justice department’s leaked 16-page document providing a legal justification for strikes on American citizens must be viewed. This document is a shorter, declassified version of a 2010 Justice department memo drafted to justify the killing of Anwar Awlaki, a US citizen and alleged al Qaeda member, in a 2011 drone strike. The Justice department document was likely drafted in response to, or in anticipation of, a suit filed by Awlaki’s father against his son’s inclusion in the CIA’s ‘kill list’. While conducting drone strikes on foreign citizens in foreign countries is apparently not an issue, it seems the US government is cognisant of the potential can of worms it opens when targeting US citizens who have been deemed “imminent threats”. The memo itself basically states the obvious: if you’re an al Qaeda member plotting to attack the United States or its citizens, and if arresting you is impossible, then you may be legally targeted.
Beyond its legal implications for the United States, this document also unwittingly provides a rationale for other states to use similar legal justifications for targeting their own citizens in foreign territories — something that may return to haunt the US in years to come.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2013.