Could the United States have used a drone to kill Tsarnaev?

April 22nd, 2013

Consider this hypothetical  Assume Tsarnaev was trapped not in Boston, but in the nearby White Mountains of New Hampshire. A manhunt in the frigid winter would have been impossible. The police suspected he was organizing another terrorist attack, perhaps even building more pressure-cooker bombs in his cabin. A drone had a clear shot at him.

Could Attorney General Holder have authorized a lethal drone strike?

Let’s go back to Eric Holder’s initial answer to Senator Rand Paul on whether the United States could use a lethal drone strike on a U.S. Citizen on American soil?

But “it is possible, I suppose to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States,” Holder said. “For example, the President could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances of a catastrophic attack” like Pearl Harbor or 9/11.

“Were such an emergency to arise, I would examine the particular facts and circumstances before advising the President on the scope of this authority,” said Holder.

I think the answer, under Holder’s initial explanation, is yes. While not quite a 9/11, the Boston Marathon Bombers were one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism in a decade. So, Obama 1.0–drone strike would be cool.

After Rand Paul’s filibuster, Holder sent a revised position of the United States.

“Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil?” Holder’s letter reads. “The answer to that is no.”

Was Tsarnaeve “in combat”? Holder’s answer, which satisfied Rand Paul, is not so satisfying in this case. Holder’s answer leaves open a lot of wiggle room.

Glenn Greenwald already considered whether Christopher Dorner should have been killed by a drone strike.

Here’s my question: if the surveillance drones detect his location, should the lives of law enforcement agents be risked, along with other civilians, in an attempt to apprehend this highly-trained warrior? Why shouldn’t an armed drone instead be immediately dispatched once his location is ascertained and simply kill him?

For those of you who believe it’s possible to know someone’s guilt without a trial, there is very little doubt about his guilt. Nobody has contested the authenticity of the confession posted in his name, nor the threats of further killing. He admitted and justified the killings on his Facebook entry.

For those of you who believe there is a clear definition of “terrorism”, Dorner meets it easily. LAPD chief Charlie Beck today said that Dorner was engaging in “domestic terrorism”. That’s because he has not only threatened to kill random LAPD officers but also their children and family members in order to terrorize the department into publicly apologizing to him. He vowed to wage what he called “unconventional and asymmetrical warfare” in pursuit of his goal. As intended, the entire community is in terror. If that’s not “domestic terrorism” under the conventional defintion, then nothing is.

Now obviously, if attempts are made to apprehend Dorner and he uses lethal force to resist, then shooting or killing him would be justified, uncontroversially so. The FBI just killed a kidnapper in Alabama when he began shooting at the agents who tried to arrest him, and nobody objected. Law enforcement agents always have the right to defend themselves against people they’re trying to arrest if lethal force is used to resist. That’s an easy case, and not what I’m asking.

Instead, suppose the LAPD locates Dorner in a cabin in a remote area of the California wilderness, just sitting alone watching television. Why should they possibly risk the lives of police officers to apprehend him? Why would anyone care if this terrorist’s rights are protected? What’s the argument for not simply killing him the moment he’s located? Given that everyone seems certain of his guilt, that he’s threatened further killings of innocents, that he declared himself at “war”, and that the risk from capturing him would be high, what danger is created by simply shooting a Hellfire missile wherever he’s found?

We already know at an aerial vehicle took thermal images of Tsarnaev.



It wouldn’t be too hard to drop a hellfire missile onto that heat signature.