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Back in September 2012 at the Democratic National Convention, two journalists with WeAreChange.org asked former White House press secretary turned senior campaign advisor Robert Gibbs about the Obama administration’s justification for the extrajudicial killing of US citizen Abdulrahman al Aulaqi. Gibbs didn’t deny that the Obama administration had ordered the killing of the 16 year old US citizen, but ducked the question by asserting that the child’s father, Anwar al Aulaqi, shouldn’t have become an “al Qaida jihadist terrorist” if he was “truly concerned about the well being” of his son.
Here's the transcript from the relevant portion of the video, embedded above.
WeAreChange: "How will Obama defend his secret kill list next week at the foreign policy debate?"
Gibbs: "Look, this President has taken the fight to al Qaida."
"Does that justify his kill list?"
"Uh, when there are people that are trying to harm us, uh, and have pledged to bring terror to these shores, uh, we’ve taken that fight to them."
"Without due process of law."
"We have taken that fight to them, uh..."
"Without a court of law...illegally, against the Geneva Conventions."
"I think I know where you are on this issue, I’m just trying to answer your questions..."
WeAreChange: "How will [Obama] defend the kill list?"
Gibbs: "Again, I think he is happy to talk about taking a fight to al Qaida, uh, making sure that those who have pledged to do harm to people in this country and bring terror to our shores, uh, what we have to do, uh, to make sure that doesn’t happen."
WeAreChange: "You said it’s important for the President to do what needs to be done in terms of members of al Qaida and people who pose a threat. Do you think that the killing of Anwar al Aulaqi’s 16 year old son who is an American citizen is justifiable?"
Gibbs: "Uh, I’m not going to get into Anwar al Aulaqi’s son, I know that Anwar al Aulaqi renounced his citizenship..."
"His son was still an American citizen."
"He brought great harm to people in this country, uh, and was a regional al Qaida commander hoping to inflict harm and destruction, uh, on people that share his religion, uh, and others in this country. And..."
"That’s an American citizen that’s being targeted without due process of law, without trial, and he’s under age, he’s a minor."
"I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they’re truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think that becoming an al Qaida jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business."
I was reminded of this bizarre exchange today while reading Judge Colleen McMahon’s 70 page opinion denying the ACLU and the NYT access to documents containing the administration’s legal justification for the targeted killing program, sought under FOIA. On page twelve of that decision, McMahon writes:
The Court is unaware of any public statements by named, current executive branch officials that discuss or acknowledge responsibility for, or participation in, the killings of [US citizens Samir] Khan or Al-Awlaki’s son. [Emphasis mine.]
Marcy Wheeler points out that the McMahon ruling is full of painstakingly particular language, suggesting that her carefully crafted writing gives us hints at what’s contained in the ruling’s classified appendix, which is secret from both the plaintiffs and the public. McMahon’s careful language indeed seems to dance around and simultaneously shed light on a number of delicate and vital questions -- issues the judge appears to believe she is barred from speaking about directly.
McMahon describes the lack of any official administration statement on the Abdulrahman al Aulaqi killing using similarly precise language.
It may be true that no “named, current executive branch official” has publicly discussed the killing of Abdulrahman al Aulaqi, but Robert Gibbs -- fresh off of a stint as press secretary and employed by the Obama 2012 campaign -- was forced to do just that last September. Gibbs did not come out and say that the Obama administration authorized the killing of the 16 year old Abdulrahman, but he didn’t deny it, either. And you could be forgiven for thinking that his admonition that the young Aulaqi have a “more responsible father” reads like a defense of the drone strike.
Nothing in the McMahon ruling hinges on this detail, as far as I can tell. I simply find it interesting that Gibbs' comments don't carry any water in court, even though he was employed by President Obama's reelection campaign and had served as the administration's official spokesman for two years.
For a summary of today’s FOIA ruling, see the NYT. The ACLU and the newspaper plan to appeal the decision.
UPDATE: Marcy Wheeler points out that the State Department's condolence call to the family of US citizen Samir Khan after his death in a US drone strike adds yet more intrigue to McMahon's "no named, current executive branch official" has acknowledged responsibility comment. In October 2011 State's spokesman Harry Edwards confirmed that such a call took place after the US killed Khan in the strike that also killed Anwar al Aulaqi.
Note: I've used the transliteration "al Aulaqi" where the government has used "Al-Awlaki". They are both used in the international and national press.