The Catch-22 of Drone Assassinations

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Glenn Greenwald points out something today that I’m embarrassed to say hadn’t occurred to me:

On Saturday in Somalia, the U.S. fired missiles from a drone and killed the 27-year-old Lebanon-born, ex-British citizen Bilal el-Berjawi. His wife had given birth 24 hours earlier and the speculation is that the U.S. located him when his wife called to give him the news…El-Berjawi’s family vehemently denies that he is involved with Terrorism, but he was never able to appeal the decree against him for this reason:

Berjawi is understood to have sought to appeal against the order, but lawyers representing his family were unable to take instructions from him amid concerns that any telephone contact could precipitate a drone attack.

Obviously, those concerns were valid. So first the U.S. tries to assassinate people, then it causes legal rulings against them to be issued because the individuals, fearing for their life, are unable to defend themselves. Meanwhile, no explanation or evidence is provided for either the adverse government act or the assassination: it is simply secretly decreed and thus shall it be.

I’m already opposed to assassinations of U.S. citizens, and not especially excited about assassinations of non-U.S. nationals either (el-Berjawi was a dual Lebanese British national whose British citizenship was stripped in 2006). So this doesn’t really change my mind about anything in a serious way. But it does make the whole thing a lot more Kafka-esque than I had imagined.

Still, in the case of non-U.S. nationals, I think the question of targeted assassinations is more difficult than some critics make it out to be. As always, it gets back to the fundamental question of (a) whether we’re at war and (b) what the battlefield is. In a shooting war, obviously you’re allowed to go after enemy combatants without a court order, and that’s the essential rationale for these killings. But where does the line get drawn? Does this war ever end? Is its scope the entire world? Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have ever been willing to say, claiming simply that the AUMF, along with the president’s inherent commander-in-chief powers, gave them all the authority they needed to make decisions solely within the executive branch.

And yet…it’s not clear what other option there is. Genuine judicial hearings, even if you think that’s the right way to go about this, are obviously nonstarters in practical terms. You could have something like the FISA court, authorizing targeted assassinations in secret hearings, which would be an improvement in technical terms but probably not in real life. It’s not as if FISA turns down government requests very often, after all. Or we could simply stop killing suspected terrorists overseas unless they’re in a declared war zone.

I’m a squish. I don’t know the answer. One way or another though, I can’t help but think that this is all going to turn out badly eventually.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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