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The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy, and the Law

The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy, and the Law

by Jameel Jaffer (Editor)

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The Drone Memos collects for the first time the legal and policy documents underlying the U.S. government’s deeply controversial practice of “targeted killing”—the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants, typically using remotely piloted aircraft or “drones.” The documents—including the


The Drone Memos collects for the first time the legal and policy documents underlying the U.S. government’s deeply controversial practice of “targeted killing”—the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants, typically using remotely piloted aircraft or “drones.” The documents—including the Presidential Policy Guidance that provides the framework for drone strikes today, Justice Department white papers addressing the assassination of an American citizen, and a highly classified legal memo that was published only after a landmark legal battle involving the ACLU, the New York Times, and the CIA—together constitute a remarkable effort to legitimize a practice that most human rights experts consider to be unlawful and that the United States has historically condemned.

In a lucid and provocative introduction, Jameel Jaffer, who led the ACLU legal team that secured the release of many of the documents, evaluates the “drone memos” in light of domestic and international law. He connects the documents’ legal abstractions to the real-world violence they allow, and makes the case that we are trading core principles of democracy and human rights for the illusion of security.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 12/05/2016
Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, examines numerous primary source documents that offer legal and ethical rationales for targeted killings by the U.S., including of American citizens on foreign soil. The Obama administration’s continued use of drones as primary weapons in the “War on Terror” has been a major disappointment to supporters of the president. Jaffer, who oversaw many of the ACLU’s cases challenging expanded government powers post-9/11, exposes the rationales by which Obama and his advisers justify their drone policy. These include public explanations, such as Obama’s 2013 remarks at the National Defense University, and classified ones, such as the 2010 Justice Department legal memo analyzing the legality of a lethal operation against Sheikh Anwar Awlaki, an American who had been dubbed the “bin Laden of the Internet.” As Jaffer notes, these justifications reflect “a deep transformation in American attitudes and society” and measure “the extent to which the perceived demands of counterterrorism have erased rule-of-law strictures that were taken for granted only a generation ago.” The documents, many of which are heavily redacted, are replete with legalese that may sound Kafkaesque to lay readers, but Jaffer more than compensates for that with a trenchant summation of the issues at hand. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

Praise for Drone Memos:
"A trenchant summation of the issues at hand."
Publishers Weekly (starred)

“A nice counterweight to the hosannas ushering Obama from office”
—Teju Cole, The Guardian, Best Books of 2016.

“The collection should interest those concerned with the conduct of modern warfare, fought in the courtroom as well as on the battlefield.”
Kirkus Reviews

"Democracies may be more fragile than we care to admit, existing perhaps one election from tyranny. At a time in history when those words blink red in the mind, this investigation shows the dangers of investing government with the power to kill suspected enemies in secret. Jaffer and his team perform a lasting public service by exposing the ‘targeted killing’ policies, and Jaffer’s introductory essay is a much-needed corrective to the linguistic manipulation and official obfuscation that have made these policies possible."
—Edward J. Snowden

"Few programs are more controversial than America’s use of killer drones. Whether for or against drones, every citizen should read the previously secret documents contained in this book, and thank the public-spirited lawyers who made them public."
—Jane Mayer

"The sad fact, as Jaffer notes, is that Democrats who protested when George W. Bush claimed broad war powers were quite willing to help Barack Obama claim even broader ones. The result is that the counterproductive, colossally wasteful, deeply unethical, and endlessly expanding ‘war on terror’ has now become a permanent bipartisan fixture of our foreign policy. Jaffer’s introduction is careful and fair—some might say too fair—but it is a devastating indictment of the irresponsible and short-sighted arguments that the Obama administration made in secret memos and then in open court."
—Glenn Greenwald

"An invaluable contribution to the literature on drone strikes. The documents, and Jaffer’s contextualization of them, provide a crucial glimpse into one of the United States government’s most shadowy, problematic and controversial programs."
—Farea al-Muslimi, chairman, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies

"This important book shows how the Obama administration embraced the legal underpinnings of the ‘global war on terror’—as well as its secrecy, lethality, and lack of meaningful constraint. Jaffer’s astute commentary critiques U.S. drone policy as unlawful and potentially counterproductive. With a new administration soon to take office, the questions he raises are increasingly urgent."
—Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser, Amnesty International

"This is a compelling expose of the sophisticated and concerted efforts by Obama Administration officials to thoroughly subvert the international rule of law in the pursuit of minor short-term military gains and at the expense of American credibility."
—Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, 2004–2010

"Armed drones have given the United States the power to kill individuals anywhere, even far from conventional battlefields, but the United States has failed to articulate clear limits on their use—let alone subscribe to the limits imposed by international law. As Jaffer’s book makes clear, that failure has grave implications as the technology of killer drones inevitably spreads to other countries."
—Ken Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch

Praise for Jameel Jaffer’s Administration of Torture:
"In gathering these truly telling documents Jaffer and Singh have distilled the essence of an evil that has shamed America. Exposing it can only help remove a terrible national stain."
—John W. Dean, Nixon White House counsel

"An extraordinarily important book.”
—Naomi Wolf, The Huffington Post

"An historic reminder of the dangers of curtailing human rights protections in the name of national security."
—Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

"An immensely useful resource."
—David Cole, The New York Review of Books

"The definitive evidence of the Bush-Cheney war crimes."
—Nat Hentoff, The Village Voice

Kirkus Reviews
A trove of documents, some heavily redacted, on the American governments evolving practice of targeted killing of terroristsand, sometimes, untargeted killing of civilians in the process.Can the U.S. government kill U.S. citizens without due process? That is the question that civil rights attorney Jaffer pressed in a legal brief filed on behalf of the family of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a Muslim cleric who had been targeted for assassination. It was a bizarre death-penalty case in which there was no indictment, the accused was in hiding overseas, and the prosecutors, who had already pronounced the sentence, were apoplectic at the suggestion that there should be anything resembling a trial, writes Jaffer. This volume collects documents broadly relevant to that case and the after-the-fact judicial review of the legal framework under which the governments actions were taken. Among them are speeches by President Barack Obama, who praised the al-Aulaqi killing as a tribute to the effectiveness of Americas intelligence-gathering services while allowing, in remarks delivered at the National Defense University, that this new technology raises profound questions. The remarks of intelligence adviser John O. Brennan are more considered; here, speaking at Harvard Law School, he presents a case for a counterterrorism framework guided by several precepts, not least the primacy of American security and of a pragmatic and not ideological policybut also upholding the core values that define us as Americans, a matter with which Jaffer finds issue. In an extensive introduction, the editor mounts a multitiered critique of national security efforts that rely on extrajudicial killing by proxy, arguing that the use of lethal force in response to non-imminent threats constitutes a violation of a jus cogens normthat is, a norm so fundamental and well settled that no departure from it is permitted. The extended redactions may put off some readers, but the collection should interest those concerned with the conduct of modern warfare, fought in the courtroom as well as on the battlefield.

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New Press, The
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5.70(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)

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Meet the Author

Jameel Jaffer is a deputy legal director of the ACLU. He led the ACLU legal team that sued for the release of the drone memos. He has written about the drone program for the New York Times, The Guardian, and the Harvard Law Review Forum among others and was listed by Foreign Policy magazine as a “Top 100 Global Thinker.” He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show, All In with Chris Hayes, and Democracy Now! and speaks regularly at venues including the American Bar Association’s annual convening, law schools, and ACLU affiliates across the country. He is the co-author of Administration of Torture and lives in Brooklyn.

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