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District Court Judge Rules on Targeted Drone Use

by Blake Bunch, published

targeted drone use

With a U.S. drone strike killing a top Pakistani commander on January 3 in South Waziristan, the continued use of drone warfare remains an issue domestically and internationally.

Mullah Nazir, a leader of one of Pakistan's four main militant groups, was a set target for the U.S. government despite a ceasefire agreement with Islamabad. Under the agreement, Nazir's group was not to launch attacks in Pakistan, but was still operational in Afghanistan and hosting members of al-Qa'ida.

In the defense of national security, a federal judge ruled that the Obama administration does not have to publicly acknowledge its reasoning for targeted drone use on terrorism operatives overseas.

In 2011 two New York Times reporters and the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request regarding any information in which the Department of Justice lawyers had discussed the controversial "targeted killing" of high priority individuals. These requests were a result of a Yemen drone strike that killed Anwar Al-Awlaki, an al-Qi'ada leader born in the United States.

In her seventy-five page ruling issued on Wednesday, District Court Judge Colleen McMahon criticized the Obama Administration for their failure to provide related documents, but  stated that she had no direct authority to order them to do so:

"I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules - a veritable Catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret."

The Obama administration's reasoning for withholding documents regarding the program utilizes national security concerns as a defense. They felt that if the documents were released, or even were admitted to exist, national security could be put at risk.

Judge McMahon continued:

"However, this court is constrained by law, and under the law, I can only conclude that the government has not violated FOIA by refusing to turn over the documents, and so cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and laws of the United States. The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me."

This ruling does not come as a surprise to most, as ongoing use of drones has become commonplace in modern warfare.

In response to the judge's ruling on Wednesday, however, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer issued a statement which also chastised the White House's ability to "relieve itself from any fair and honest explanation as to the justification of Americans."

The ACLU and the New York Times are yet to remain complacent with this decision.

"We began this litigation because we believed our readers deserved to know more about the US government's legal position on the use of targeted killings against persons having ties to terrorism, including US citizens," said Times assistant general counsel, David McGraw.

Though McMahon sided with the plaintiffs in this ruling, it is obvious that she is not pleased with the Obama administration's lack of public disclosure on this issue. As "targeted killings" such as the case with Nazir or Al-Awlaki will continue to remain a part of the White House's plan of attack for the Middle East, public outcry could foster a level of discourse on the subject.

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