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Michael Ratner: Eliminating Targets Based on NSA spying but not verified by human intelligence demonstrates Obama’s false promise of oversight
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. And welcome to this latest edition of The Ratner Report.
Now joining us is Michael Ratner. He’s the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, U.S. attorney for Julian Assange, and the president of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. He’s also a board member for The Real News.
Thank you so much for joining us again, Michael.
RATNER: Always good to be with The Real News. And thank you, Jaisal.
NOOR: So, Michael, tell us what you have for us this week.
RATNER: Well, this has been what I would call drone week–a couple of stories that are really important and interesting about the United States and its use of what I call the murder machine, or drones.
The stories this week really make a mockery of a speech that Obama gave in May 2013 on drones and national security, in which he claimed there was going to be strong oversight of any lethal actions, and he gave the strongest legal oversight, and they were almost sure when they used them they wouldn’t kill civilians. And in that speech he said, we’re going to continue to have strong oversight. And he also justified the killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.
Well, this week’s stories show those claims to be just completely and utterly bogus. I should just tell our viewers that CCR does represent the family of Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as his son, who were killed by drones. And we did try and stop those murders during the time, particularly the [father]. The son we didn’t know about.
And so what these new revelations show, really, is, in my view, the carelessness by which they go around killing people with drones.
The big story and the first story to come out came out under the new media venture called First Look Media. That’s the new venture set up by Pierre Omidyar of eBay and PayPal, and that’s the one that’s going to include and does include now journalists Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, and Laura Poitras. It began with their first magazine story, online magazine, that Jeremy and Glenn and Laura are publishing in a magazine they call The Intercept. And the first story is by Scahill and Greenwald, and it’s called “The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program”. And my comments around this issue are taken primarily from that story.
Another name that you could think of for that story, I would say maybe a better name, is “Killing by SIM Card”, because as the story unravels, or unrolls, you’ll see that what’s happening here is we’re droning people to death based on a SIM card.
The heart of the story is that the NSA is using electronic surveillance to decide whom to kill and not using human intelligence. And that electronic surveillance is unreliable. And the story explains why, that they use that electronic surveillance to decide who to target, who to get by either drone or otherwise, and it’s not very reliable. What they do (and this is the NSA): they geolocate where a SIM card is who they think is the SIM card belonging to someone they want to murder or kill, or a phone of someone they want to murder or kill, and they give that information to the CIA or the Pentagon, and then the kill happens. Unfortunately, it appears that often that information is not verified by human intelligence. So what they’re doing is basing killing on SIM cards and phones.
They also, as part of this gathering of information about people’s SIM cards and phones, they fly the drones over areas. On the drones they put a false cell phone antenna that thereby pulls in every single cell phone from the area, surveils everything, transmits it, presumably, to the CIA, and then, of course, the phone goes on its way to whomever they’re calling. They have an expression, the NSA, a couple of expressions for using this means of identifying–I won’t say people; identifying whoever is holding a SIM card or a phone. And they call it we track ’em, you whack ’em. Another one is called “F3”–find, fix, and finish. So they’re using drones on the basis of SIM cards and phones without knowing who is holding them.
And one of the interesting things in the story is they say that some of the people who believe they might be targeted had as many as 16 different SIM cards, and they’re distributed everywhere, so you don’t really know who has the SIM card, who’s holding it, and essentially who the drone is going to kill. Some people who don’t know about this whole surveillance way of getting targets lend their phones, as everybody does–you lend it to your–especially–there’s only a few phones; you lend it to your family, you lend it to your children, you lend it to people in the village. And those people thereby could become targets of assassination by drone.
The other thing in the story that I think is important for listeners or viewers to understand–and this one came out of a Snowden document–is that by 2009–it was for the first time in U.S. history–there are more pilots trained to fly drones than conventional aircraft. And so you can imagine what that means. That means that this method of killing people without human intelligence, but by SIM card and drone, is unfortunately with us for a long time, and it just belies, really, the words of Obama that there’s claims of strong oversight. How can there be such claims when you’re killing by SIM card?
The second story is not from The Intercept but has just been circulating in general media, and that’s a story about the killing of another American, apparently by drone. They want to kill him. They haven’t killed him yet, from what we know. The American is living in Pakistan, or in Pakistan. And there’s some division within the administration about whether he’s someone they ought to kill. In other words, they’re not sure they ought to kill him. Has he done enough to kill him? Has he not done enough?
And my position on this is–it’s been our position on all of the drone killings, but particularly, of course, in the case of the American we represented, Anwar al-Awlaki–is that a person, American or not, when they’re not in a war zone, makes it doubly or triply illegal to kill them by drone. Imagine–I mean, that’s what the equivalent of–droning someone in Pakistan is the equivalent of droning someone in London or Paris or any place outside a war zone.
Secondly, what CCR, Center for Constitutional Rights, said in our lawsuit when we tried to stop the al-Awlaki killing was that before you kill an American (but in my view before you kill anyone outside a war zone, in particular, that’s not a combatant fighting), you have to have due process. And that means a court. That means you have to go to a court. And it’s like an execution, essentially, it’s like a death penalty, and you have to comply with due process, as we know, before you can kill someone in any way. And the president is not due process. The president is the executive. He is killing without due process.
The third thing, the third issue on drone killings–and the Center made this clear in the Anwar al-Awlaki case–is that [at least three] elements are required, even if you had to present that to a court. But at least three elements are required if you’re going to try and stop someone from doing something. The plot they have has to be specific. It has to be aimed at the United States. It has to be concrete. And it has to be imminent. And imminent is very important. In other words, you have to have your finger on the button. In that case, then, yes, there might be an exception for imminence that you might be able to try and go into that country and arrest–or first try the legal means to get that person, and then, because it’s imminent, figure out a way to stop that person.
But in this case of the American they want to kill in Pakistan, they’re obviously arguing about has he done enough, has he not done enough, what has he done. That’s not imminence–completely illegal for all the reasons I’ve said before, and for that reason as well.
And then what the United States claims here is that Pakistan won’t allow the United States to go in and capture the person. You know, that doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s BS. Look what they did with bin Laden. When they went in, they didn’t care whether Pakistan approved or not. Perhaps it had, perhaps it hadn’t. I don’t know.
So the answer is, on killing an American, here we go again. Killing by drone, in my final words on this, or murder by drone or SIM card in the worldwide surveillance system we’re under is really one of the worst, incredible excesses of the post-911 war on terror. In some way, it sounds like it’s science fiction. And I wish it were, but it’s not. It’s the United States of America.
NOOR: Michael Ratner, thank you so much for joining us.
RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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