By Tim Cushing
The federal government is back in court, arguing for its unilateral right to kill US citizens. Two journalists who had appeared to have been mistakenly targeted by drone strikes sued the government in 2017, seeking an injunction forbidding their own government from extrajudicially killing them.
The journalists, Ahmad Zaidan and Bilal Kareem, both experienced near misses by drone strikes. The suspicion they were mistakenly targeted was confirmed by an NSA document leaked by Ed Snowden that claimed Zaidan — an Al Jazeera journalist — was a member of Al Qaeda. His targeting was related to the government’s bulk collection of metadata, which would have placed Zaidan close to several Al Qaeda members. His proximity to Al Qaeda members was to be expected, given his coverage of Al Qaeda activity and other events/incidents in the areas he covered.
All it takes is metadata to get someone killed — even US citizens like Bilal Kareem who, like Zaidan, routinely covered Al Qaeda activity and spoke to Al Qaeda members. Kareem’s solo lawsuit demanding confirmation that he had been placed on the government’s kill list was terminated by the DC Circuit Court in 2019, which held that the information was too sensitive to share with US citizens possibly marked for death by their own government.
His joint lawsuit with Zaidan lives on, however. And it may finally provide the journalists with some answers. As Megan Mineiro reports for Courthouse News Service, the DC judges handling the case seemed rather shocked by the government’s assertions.
Drawing alarm at the D.C. Circuit, a lawyer for the United States argued Monday that the government has the power to kill its citizens without judicial oversight when state secrets are involved.
“Do you appreciate how extraordinary that proposition is?” U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Millett asked Justice Department attorney Bradley Hinshelwood, paraphrasing his claim as giving the government the ability to “unilaterally decide to kill U.S. citizens.”
The “state secrets” assertion was the same claim used to escape Kareem’s solo lawsuit. But it doesn’t appear to be working quite as well this time — not when the government is saying it can engage in extrajudicial, extraterritorial killings of US citizens and other non-terrorists. “We kill people based on metadata,” a former US government official gleefully exclaimed in response to Snowden leaks. That still holds true, and it appears the government loses no sleep when it kills the wrong people based on flawed assumptions about patterns in its metadata stash.
The government’s alternate argument wasn’t much better. It basically claimed Kareem couldn’t prove the US targeted him because lots of people were throwing around bombs and missiles.
Shrugging off Kareem’s claims as baseless speculation, the government argued the alleged airstrikes occurred at a time when Syria was wracked by civil war.
“In all of these circumstances, he’s not even the only person present, much less is there anything to suggest that he’s actually the target of any of these specific attacks,” Hinshelwood said.
Of course, the government could easily prove it never targeted these journalists by handing over information about the contested drone strikes. But it won’t. It would rather argue it can kill whoever it wants without oversight or judicial review. The government would rather make this bold statement in open court than submit classified info directly to judges and lawyers with security clearance that would confirm or refute the placement of the plaintiffs on kill lists. The government’s priorities are incredibly screwed up. And we have a long and pointless “war on terror” to thank for its refusal to answer questions about its drone strike programs — programs that may well be targeting innocent people (including US citizens).