Why not then target "Snowden"?
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is debating whether to authorize a lethal strike against an American citizen living in Pakistan who some believe is actively plotting terror attacks, according to current and former government officials.
It is the first time American officials have actively discussed killing an American citizen overseas since President Obama imposed new restrictions on drone operations last May.
The officials would not confirm the identity of the terror suspect, or provide any information about what evidence they have amassed about the suspect’s involvement in attacks against Americans. The debate about whether to put the individual on a kill list was first reported on Monday by The Associated Press.
The first time the Obama administration carried out a targeted killing operation against an American citizen was in September 2011, when a C.I.A. drone killed the radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, officials said little publicly about the operation. The White House acknowledged last year that four American citizens had been killed in drone strikes during Mr. Obama’s time in office. According to the White House, only Mr. Awlaki had been intentionally targeted.
During a speech last May, Mr. Obama said he intended to gradually shift drone operations from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon, partly to make them more transparent. American officials said then that drone strikes in Pakistan would continue to be launched by the C.I.A. because Pakistan refuses to allow open American military operations on its soil.
However, under a classified policy issued by Mr. Obama there is a strong preference for the Pentagon — not the C.I.A. — to carry out drone strikes against American citizens, though the policy is said to allow exceptions if necessary.
American officials said that the new discussions about whether to strike the American in Pakistan had been going on since the middle of last year. The public got a glimpse of the debate last week when Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, spoke angrily about the drone restrictions imposed by Mr. Obama.
“Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape,” Mr. Rogers said during a congressional hearing.
The new rules, Mr. Rogers said, are “endangering the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas in a way that is frustrating to our allies and frustrating to those of us who engage in the oversight of our classified activities.”
Still, several senior officials in both the executive branch and Congress confirmed that even though the policy establishes a baseline rule that only the Pentagon is to conduct drone strikes against American citizens, a clause makes an exception that would in theory allow the administration to use the C.I.A. to carry out a strike if circumstances justified it.
“This was Brennan’s brainchild,” said a senior congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the continuing policy debate over the matter, referring to John O. Brennan, the C.I.A. director. “They wanted to be able to talk about it, disclose it, and provide the legal footing for it.”
Details about the deliberations — including the identity of the proposed target, what he is accused of doing, and the quality of any evidence against him — remain murky. It is not clear how much reluctance by the administration to approve a strike is based on whether he meets the standard — a continuing, imminent threat against Americans — and how much other factors, like the complications raised by the military preference, are playing a role.
Despite Mr. Obama’s efforts to reform the rules governing the use of drones, they remain controversial. “So little has changed since last year, when it comes to government secrecy over killings,” said Naureen Shah, advocacy adviser at Amnesty International U.S.A. “The public and most members of Congress are still completely in the dark about where the U.S. claims authority to strike, the legal rules, and the identity of those already killed.”
“The policy is still the stuff of official secrecy and speculation, when it should be a matter of open debate and explicit constraints,” Ms. Shah said.
Spokesmen at the Pentagon, C.I.A. and White House declined on Monday to comment on the matter.
The administration’s ambivalence on this case has infuriated Mr. Rogers. “The chairman is fired up about this,” the congressional aide said.
The aide also confirmed that the Defense Department was initially reluctant to place the individual on the targeting list, questioning whether he met the new standards that Mr. Obama laid out last May. But eventually the Pentagon came around, said the aide, who added that the C.I.A. had supported a lethal strike from the beginning.