The Pentagon follows a six-step process that can go as high as the president of the United States before launching an aerial strike against a suspected terrorist target, according to military documents filed in federal court this week.
If commanders or intelligence officers in the field want to use an unmanned drone to fire a missile or have a bomber drop a laser-guided bomb on a suspected terrorist, says a briefing document prepared by the Pentagon's joint staff last November, they have to follow these steps:
* Identify the target.
* Determine if the target is a fully developed threat.
The ACLU wants to prevent the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, who preaches violence against America.
* Evaluate whether the intelligence supports the targeting.
* Consider whether eliminating the target would further US interests.
* Weigh domestic and international laws to determine what rules apply.
* Strike the target and analyze the results.
According to the Pentagon document, titled "Joint Targeting Cycle and Collateral Damage Estimation Methodology," while an aerial attack during the Vietnam war would cause collateral damage up to 400 feet from its intended target, that range has been cut to 40 feet. That's because of improved bombs and missiles that carry smaller payloads and have more sophisticated guidance systems.
For example, the Predator and Reaper unmanned drones, which are most frequently used in these attacks, use Hellfire missiles, which have a much smaller range of collateral damage than the 500 lbs. "dumb" bombs used in earlier wars. These drones also use laser-guided explosives that can be guided with far greater precision than even those to great fanfare in the first Gulf war almost 20 years ago.
The unusual release of such information is because of the ACLU's ongoing challenge to the Obama administration's drone program.
On Aug. 30, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, father of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who now leads al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula and has been a popular propagandist for the movement. The case says Obama and military officials have been given "sweeping authority to impose death sentences" without legal approval.
But the Pentagon's defense shows how careful the government is with such attacks.
Besides the six-step process, there are a number of "no strike" zones and targets, including religious centers, medical facilities, schools and public utilities. Attacking any of these requires direct approval from the president or the secretary of defense.
The increased use of drones has been an integral part of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policy. Earlier this year, CIA Director Leon Panetta reported that "those operations are seriously disrupting al Qaeda . . . It's pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling and that we really do have them on the run."
Awlaki's complicity in terrorist attacks is unquestioned. Since late 2009, Awlaki "has taken on an increasingly operational role in [al Qaeda]," said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a statement filed in the court case in August. Awlaki, Clapper said, has recruited terrorists and planned and facilitated attacks in the United States and abroad. He is also a contributing editor for the terrorist organization's cyber magazine, Inspire, in which the group calls for the targeting of civilian centers throughout the United States. In one such call to jihad, the magazine says: "The ideal location is a place where there are a maximum number of pedestrian and the least number of vehicles. In fact if you can get through to 'pedestrian only' locations that exist in some downtown (city center) areas, that would be fabulous."
Contrast this with the Pentagon document, whose unnamed author concludes that "never before has a nation taken such measures and resources to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties."
Based on Clapper's testimony and Awlaki's own actions, the former imam at mosques in San Diego, Denver and Washington fits the criteria spelled out in the targeting document. He's called for the killing of US troops and civilians and inspired Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army officer accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood last November. Clearly, if a goal is eliminating a key leader in al Qaeda, then eliminating Awlaki with an airstrike is no different than the continued attempts to kill the Taliban's Mullah Omar the same way.
The ACLU may consider targeted killings immoral, but is it more immoral than the widespread use of human shields by the Taliban? Than the targeting by al Qaeda of commercial airliners? Awlaki would deny everyone else the rights the ACLU claims he has. Meanwhile, 17 international troops were killed in the last month trying to protect the freedom of Afghanis.
If the ACLU is filing lawsuits on behalf of protecting US-born terrorists from targeted assassinations, why isn't the ACLU filing lawsuits on behalf of American soldiers who have become corollary assassination targets while being handcuffed in fighting those who killed 3,000 Americans?
Steven Emerson is executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism (invesgtigativeproject.org) and the executive producer of the upcoming documentary "Jihad in America 2: The Grand Deception."