The American Bear


The US murder program in Colombia

U.S. intelligence, GPS bomb kits help Latin American nation cripple rebel forces

By Dana Priest

The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation’s battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.

In March 2008, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials, the Colombian Air Force, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.

The covert action program in Colombia is one of a handful of enhanced intelligence initiatives that has escaped public notice since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. …

… White House lawyers, along with their colleagues from the CIA and the departments of Justice, Defense and State, had their own questions to work through. It was one thing to use a PGM to defeat an enemy on the battlefield — the U.S. Air Force had been doing that for years. It was another to use it to target an individual FARC leader. Would that constitute an assassination, which is prohibited by U.S. law? And, “could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?” said one lawyer involved.

The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel and others finally decided that the same legal analysis they had applied to al-Qaeda could be applied to the FARC. [continue]

The Extra Drone Dead: Covert Actions or Side Payments? | Marcy Wheeler

As I noted earlier, McClatchy has seen a slew of documents that — while obviously false on the topic of civilian casualties, at a minimum — show that hundreds of the people we’re killing are not legitimate targets under the AUMF.

The U.S. intelligence reports reviewed by McClatchy covered most – although not all – of the drone strikes in 2006-2008 and 2010-2011. In that later period, Obama oversaw a surge in drone operations against suspected Islamist sanctuaries on Pakistan’s side of the border that coincided with his buildup of 33,000 additional U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. Several documents listed casualty estimates as well as the identities of targeted groups.

McClatchy’s review found that:

– At least 265 of up to 482 people who the U.S. intelligence reports estimated the CIA killed during a 12-month period ending in September 2011 were not senior al Qaida leaders but instead were “assessed” as Afghan, Pakistani and unknown extremists. Drones killed only six top al Qaida leaders in those months, according to news media accounts.

Forty-three of 95 drone strikes reviewed for that period hit groups other than al Qaida, including the Haqqani network, several Pakistani Taliban factions and the unidentified individuals described only as “foreign fighters” and “other militants.”

During the same period, the reports estimated there was a single civilian casualty, an individual killed in an April 22, 2011, strike in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

– At other times, the CIA killed people who only were suspected, associated with, or who probably belonged to militant groups.

As I’ve suggested, this report is perhaps most interesting for the fact that CIA, in its own documents, claims that none of the 40-some people killed at Datta Khel on May 17, 2011 were civilians.

In other words, the CIA is lying — even internally — about drone strikes as blatantly as it did about torture.

But given that this report is generating more attention to the excuses we use for killing people, it would be useful if people review this post from Gregory McNeal. In it, he reveals that — regardless of what the drone people say publicly — there are actually three categories that will get you on a targeting list.

Many have already analyzed the potential legal rationales offered by the U.S. government in support of its targeted killing campaigns (the subject of Part I of the paper), therefore let me just offer this summary with regard to categories of targets. There are three basic categories of targets who might find their way onto a kill-list: (1) Targets who fall within the AUMF, and its associated forces interpretations [AUMF Targets], (2) targets who fall within the terms of a covert action finding [Covert Action Targets], and (3) targets provided by allies in a non-international armed conflict in which the U.S. is a participant. [Ally Targets or derisively “side payment targets.”] These categories will oftentimes overlap, however there also may be circumstances where a target rests exclusively within one category.

So there are two reasons people who are obviously not in the categories listed in self-serving speeches might be killed. Either, because they’re targeted under the Gloves Come Off Memorandum under Article II Authority, or because we’re murdering people as a favor for our allies.

How Obama justifies murder | Paul Woodward

[…] The problem with sanctioning a policy of assassination is that assassins are murderers and governments that authorize murder are flirting with tyranny. Democracy can’t be sustained if those in power believe they can suspend the rule of law whenever it seems convenient.

When President Obama authorizes a drone strike in Pakistan, Yemen, or anywhere else, he is ordering members of the CIA to engage in murder. The targets might not be as transparently unthreatening as was Wael Zuaiter and the method of killing might not be so obviously murder as is a bullet to the head at point-blank range. Indeed, this is what makes drone warfare a salable policy: the fact that rather than having the appearance of cold-blooded killing, it looks like military operations carried out on the battlefield — even though these attacks are taking place in locations where the United States is not at war. There are no bullet-ridden bodies, no autopsies, no police investigations, no agents on the run or in prison, and no trials.

And even now, when the use of drones is being widely questioned and a New York Times reporter can write in a matter of fact way that for this administration “killing is more convenient than capture,” there is little prospect that Obama’s authorization of murder will face legal scrutiny. Instead, the CIA is in the process of quietly handing over to the Pentagon responsibility for drone operations.

Questions about whether Obama’s kill list and the deaths of more than 3,000 people involve any kind of criminality will never be addressed and America can retain its sense of innocence with the soothing thought that whatever was done, was done in order to save precious American lives.

That’s all this memo is: Obama-loyal appointees telling their leader that he has the authority to do what he wants. But in the warped world of US politics, this - secret memos from partisan lackeys - has replaced judicial review as the means to determine the legality of the president’s conduct. Chilling legal memo from Obama DOJ justifies assassination of US citizens | Glenn Greenwald

DOJ Memo: Obama Administration Claims Broader Authority To Kill Americans | Jonathan Turley

We have previously discussed the President’s “kill list” policy under which Obama claims the right to be able to kill any American based on his sole judgment and discretion. A confidential Justice Department memo now sheds more light on that policy and states a broader basis for such killings than previously suggested by the Administration. It is also not clear why this memo was kept secret by the Administration since it deals only with legal interpretations — not classified operational information.

Last March, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared at the Northwestern University Law School to present the new policy, claiming that the President did not need any conviction or even a charge to kill an American citizen. While he stressed that this was based on a rationale that the citizen posed “an imminent threat of violent attack,” I noted at the time that any such limitation was purely discretionary under the theory of executive power being advanced by the Obama Administration.

It now appears that the Administration lawyers reached the same conclusion. The memo notes that there does not need to be an imminent attack in terms of an unfolding plan or operation: “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

In plain language, that means that the President considers the citizens to be a threat in the future. Moreover, the memo allows killings when an attempt to capture the person would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel. That undue risk is left undefined.

The memo, entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force,” is a tour de force of an imperial presidency. It was provided previously to both Democratic and Republican members of Congress on the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees. However, those members did nothing to stop such an extreme assertion of unilateral presidential power or to alert the public that the president was claiming far greater latitude in ordering the killings of citizens.

In an Orwellian twist, the memo insists “A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” It is more like a very pointed expression of presidential displeasure.

Here is the memo: 020413_DOJ_White_Paper

Im-mi-nent: (Adj, DOJ) 20 Months | emptywheel

Michael Isikoff has obtained and posted the white paper DOJ gave to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees to stave off giving them the OLC memos that actually authorized Anwar al-Awlaki’s killing. I noted its mention in an SJC markup last year.

While the memos they are hiding are almost certainly far more damning (as I’ll lay out tomorrow), this is utterly damning in itself.

It effectively defines imminence so as to have no meaning.

First, the condition that an operational leader present an “imminent” threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future. Given the nature of, for example, the terrorist attacks on September 11, in which civilian airliners were hijacked to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this definition of imminence, which would require the United States to refrain from action until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself. The defensive options available to the United States may be reduced or eliminated if al-Qa’ida operatives disappear and cannot be found when the time of their attack approaches. Consequently, with respect to al-Qa’ida leaders who are continually planning attacks, the United States is likely to have only a limited window of opportunity within which to defend Americans in a manner that has both a high likelihood of success and sufficiencly reduces the probabilities of civilian casualties.


By its nature, therefore, the threat posed by al-Qa’ida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat, making the use of force appropriate. In this context, imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans.


With this understanding, a high-level official could conclude, for example, that an individual poses an “imminent threat” of violent attack against the United States where he is an operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force and is personally and continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States. Second, where the al-Qa’ida member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member’s involvement in al-Qa’ida’s continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the members is an imminent threat.

Even assuming this is the justification they used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, they killed him about 20 months after the alleged attacks (the UndieBomber and plotting against British Airways) in which they sort of have evidence against him (though DOJ has always managed to make sure that evidence was not challenged in an antagonistic setting).

If you measure from the toner cartridge plot — in which other AQAP members seem to have been the operational leaders — it was a year between the plot and the killing.

Anwar al-Awlaki may have been dangerous and surely was a hateful man. But it appears clear that DOJ had no evidence he was an imminent threat — at least as traditionally defined.

So they just redefined it.

Marcy Wheeler (emptywheel) has churned out more posts related to the targeted killing “white paper”:

DOJ Tells Judges to Go Fuck Themselves
This Isn’t the Memo You’re Looking For
The Timing of the White Paper

Senator Asks CIA Nominee When Drones Can Kill Americans | Danger Room

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter on Monday to John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism adviser and nominee to be head of the CIA, asking for an outline of the legal and practical rules that underpin the U.S. government’s targeted killing of American citizens suspected of working with al-Qaida. The Obama administration has repeatedly resisted disclosing any such information about its so-called “disposition matrix” targeting terrorists, especially where it concerns possible American targets. Brennan reportedly oversees that matrix from his White House perch, and would be responsible for its execution at CIA director.

“How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?” Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, asks in the letter, acquired by Danger Room. “Does the President have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?”

Wyden’s questions about the targeted-killing effort get specific. He wants to know how the administration determines when it is “not feasible” to capture American citizens suspected of terrorism; if the administration considers its authority to order such killings inherent in its Constitutional war powers or embedded in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force; and if the intelligence agencies can “carry out lethal operations inside the United States.” Wyden also expresses “surprise and dismay” that the intelligence agencies haven’t provided him with a complete list of countries in which they’ve killed people in the war on terrorism, which he says “reflects poorly on the Obama administration’s commitment to cooperation with congressional oversight.”

[…] “For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch’s understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative,” Wyden writes. [++]

John Stockwell, one of several CIA officers who became whistle-blowers, said, in 1990, that the CIA had completed 3,000 large and 10,000 lesser covert operations during its existence.

 Stockwell asserted that at least six million people had been murdered in the CIA’s secret wars. That would bring the figures of persons murdered overtly and covertly by the United States to 26 million by 2008—and that does not include covert murders since 1990 or the overt killings since 2008. Ron Ridenour, Regimen of Permanent Wars

The Year in Quotes | Micah Zenko

Representative Tom Graves: “Does the federal government have the ability to kill a U.S. citizen on United States soil or just overseas?”

Director of the FBI Robert Muller: “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not…. I am going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.” (Hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, March 7, 2012.)

Mueller has been the FBI director since the week before Sept. 11, 2001, and has been intimately involved in virtually every significant counter-terrorism policy decision since. If he does not know if U.S. citizens can be killed by the federal government within the United States, it is hard to imagine who would. The Obama administration has never confirmed if the federal government can kill U.S. citizens at home, though [Attorney General Eric] Holder claimed that there are no limits to “the geographic scope of our ability to use force.” [++]

On June 5, 1975, the New York Times quoted approvingly the late Senator Frank Church’s condemnation of state assassinations. ‘I don’t care who may have ordered it. Murder is murder. The United States is not a wicked country and we cannot abide a wicked government.’ Thirty-seven years later, the Times does not have any principled objection to assassinations. It only desires that murders be carried out in accordance with a set of bureaucratically administered rules.

The “rule of law” and state killings by Bill Van Auken and David North

The authors are referring to the Nov. 29th column by the editorial board of the New York Times,Rules for Targeted Killing”.


The more fundamental conception … is that “formal guidelines”—elsewhere the editorial stresses that “rules for killing…need to be rigorous and formalized”—somehow legitimize what is unquestionably the most heinous crime that a government can commit—taking human life without due process of law.

To speak of some set of “rules” or “guidelines” adopted by the executive branch to govern these killings being “based on the rule of law” is both legally fraudulent and morally obscene. The entire program of drone assassinations represents a repudiation in practice of the bedrock principles of law, ranging from habeas corpus to the right to confront one’s accusers and the right to receive a trial by a jury of one’s peers.

An inherently criminal practice cannot be made legal, let alone constitutional, by cloaking it in a set of procedures and regulations drawn up in secret and implemented by high-ranking state officials.

… If the US government is empowered to carry out the extrajudicial execution of US citizens and noncitizens alike overseas, it is only a matter of time before a president orders an assassination within the United States.

No biggie, as long as they follow the “rules”!

The “rule of law” and state killings | Bill Van Auken and David North

There are occasions when statements appearing in newspapers are so significant that one can justifiably predict they will be cited for years to come.

Such is the case with the November 29 editorial published by the New York Times entitled “Rules for Targeted Killing.” It marks another critical milestone in the repudiation of core democratic rights and constitutional principles by the US ruling establishment.

The editorial notes approvingly that the Obama administration is “developing rules for when to kill terrorists around the world.”

The drafting of these “rules” has been attributed to concerns within the administration in advance of the elections that “standards and procedures” be put in place in case Obama lost. Undoubtedly a more compelling motivation is the fear that one day they could all be indicted for war crimes. The new rules, and the Times editorial itself, are a tacit admission of criminality.

Nonetheless, the Times hails this “first step toward acknowledging that when the government kills people away from the battlefield, it must stay within formal guidelines based on the rule of law—especially when the life of an American citizen is at stake.”

To call such language Orwellian barely begins to do it justice.

“Targeted killings” or “when the government kills people away from the battlefield” are transparent euphemisms for state assassinations and extrajudicial murders, which are explicitly banned by international law and proscribed by the US Constitution. Over the last four years, the Obama administration has been carrying out such crimes on an industrial scale by means of drone missile attacks.

As for this policy targeting “terrorists,” the word itself has become an essential part of Washington newspeak, used to describe anyone seen as a direct or even potential obstacle to US global interests, and to label, ex post facto, anyone whom the US has killed.

[…] The Times affirms that “formal guidelines based on the rule of law” should be observed “especially when the life of an American citizen is at stake.” The obvious implication is that murdering noncitizens is no major concern and can be done more or less at will, an odious distinction that exists nowhere in the US Constitution.

The more fundamental conception, however, is that “formal guidelines”—elsewhere the editorial stresses that “rules for killing…need to be rigorous and formalized”—somehow legitimize what is unquestionably the most heinous crime that a government can commit—taking human life without due process of law.

To speak of some set of “rules” or “guidelines” adopted by the executive branch to govern these killings being “based on the rule of law” is both legally fraudulent and morally obscene. [++]

Good Thing John Brennan Didn’t Have to Follow His “Rule Book” When He Killed Adnan al-Qadhi | emptywheel

[…] I find it interesting that less than a day after … the election, Brennan’s drone program took out a Yemeni who – by local accounts, at least – could have easily have been captured.

American counterterrorism officials have painted drone strikes as a tool of last resort, utilized only when targets represent an imminent threat and are nearly impossible to take out by other means. But people in Beit al Ahmar say it’s hard to argue that [Adnan al-]Qadhi’s capture would have been out of the question. He’d already been arrested, and released, before, in 2008 after an attack on the American Embassy. And Beit al Ahmar, nine miles outside Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, is no isolated enclave – it’s the birthplace of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and home to much of the military’s leadership.

Sitting less than an hour’s drive from the capital, residents here say Qadhi could have been captured easily.


Few here dispute Qadhi’s open sympathy toward AQAP. After all, the target’s house, modest compared to nearby fortress-like compounds, sticks out because of a mural on one side that shows al Qaida’s signature black flag.

But his relatives and associates say there’s more nuance to Qadhi’s story. While he was labeled as a local leader of AQAP after his death, as recently as last winter he’d participated on a team that mediated between the government and AQAP-linked militants who’d seized control of the central town of Rada.

Back in April–the last time Drone Assassination Czar John Brennan was making a big show of the purported order of his drone program–here’s some of what he said about who the US targeted with drones.

Even if it is lawful to pursue a specific member of al-Qaida, we ask ourselves whether that individual’s activities rise to a certain threshold for action, and whether taking action will, in fact, enhance our security. For example, when considering lethal force we ask ourselves whether the individual poses a significant threat to U.S. interests.  This is absolutely critical, and it goes to the very essence of why we take this kind of exceptional action.


I am not referring to some hypothetical threat, the mere possibility that a member of al-Qaida might try to attack us at some point in the future.  A significant threat might be posed by an individual who is an operational leader of al-Qaida or one of its associated forces.  Or perhaps the individual is himself an operative, in the midst of actually training for or planning to carry out attacks against U.S. persons and interests.


In addition, our unqualified preference is to only undertake lethal force when we believe that capturing the individual is not feasible. [my emphasis]

Of course, I’ve suggested that the entire speech was bullshit, just an attempt to prepare an intent-based defense in case Brennan ever got in trouble for killing so many illegitimate targets.

But the case of Adnan al-Qadhi appears to show that John Brennan can’t even follow the rules he has claimed publicly he follows.

And that bit about whether or not a particular drone strike would enhance our security?

Here’s what al-Qadhi’s villagers–who up until this strike were peaceful–have to say about the strike.

In the center of the village, a farmer named Abduljaber Saber held forth on the strike with his neighbors, calling the attack a violation of the rule of law, casting it as an example of “American hypocrisy.”

His neighbor, Mohamed Abdulwali, took a break from repairing a water canister to chime in: “Any action has a reaction. Any violence will breed violence.”

John Brennan, the priest-like assassination czar, doesn’t seem to be following his own rules.

The NYT and “Targeted Killings”: Which Fork to Use? | Translation Exercises

The NYT Room for Debate of yesterday led with the question: How can Targeted Killings Ever Be Justified? It was followed by the caption: Are government-sponsored assassinations ever appropriate?

There are several things to say about the “debate.”

The wistfully posed interrogative–in the aftermath of Israel’s killing of a Hamas leader, and massacre of 14 civilians and children–was astounding. The title of the “debate” is notable for the assumption that targeted killings are to be taken for granted.  The topic of the debate is not “whether” targeted killings can ever be justified…but how?  The subtitle confirms the unspoken premise in the initial question: Are “government-led” murders ever appropriate?

The NYT Debate has elevated the ethical question of state-led killing to the plane of discussing etiquette. The question is not whether to use a fork. But which one? And when?

Translation: What are the creative and varying ways by which Israel or the U.S.–the only states permitted to engage in extrajudicial murders of alleged terrorists or civilians without repercussions–can justify a system of focused, intended assassinations? Given that they will happen from now on with regularity, can an ineffectual and impotent public, led by an obedient media, find a way to approve and support extrajudicial state actions?

Obama's kill list policy compels US support for Israeli attacks on Gaza | Glenn Greenwald

… I want to focus on the US response to all of this. US policy always lies at the heart of these episodes, because Israeli aggression is possible only due to the unstinting financial, military and diplomatic support of the US. Needless to say, the Obama administration wasted no time expressing its “full-throttled support” for the Israeli attacks. And one can’t help but notice the timing of this attack: launched just days after Obama’s re-election victory, demanding an answer to the question of whether Obama was told in advance of these attacks and gave his approval.

Ultimately, though, Obama had no choice but to support these attacks, which were designed, in part, to extra-judicially assassinate Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari as he was driving in his car (the IDF then proudly posted the video of its hit on YouTube). How could Obama possibly have done anything else?

Extra-judicial assassination - accompanied by the wanton killing of whatever civilians happen to be near the target, often including children - is a staple of the Obama presidency. That lawless tactic is one of the US president’s favorite instruments for projecting force and killing whomever he decides should have their lives ended: all in total secrecy and with no due process or oversight. There is now a virtually complete convergence between US and Israeli aggression, making US criticism of Israel impossible not only for all the usual domestic political reasons, but also out of pure self-interest: for Obama to condemn Israel’s rogue behavior would be to condemn himself.

It is vital to recognize that this is a new development. The position of the US government on extra-judicial assassinations long had been consistent with the consensus view of the international community: that it is a savage and lawless weapon to be condemned regardless of claims that it is directed at “terrorists”.