Panetta on Decision To Kill Anwar Al-Awlaki with Drone Strike

October 7th, 2014

Leon Panetta’s memoir also provides some (not a lot) about the internal deliberations to target Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, with a drone strike.

At the end of the ceremony, I asked Bill Danvers, my congressional liaison, to pull aside the chairmen and ranking members of the intelligence committees. Danvers escorted that small group— Senators Feinstein and Bond, Representative Hoekstra, Staff Directors Mike Delaney and David Grannis— into a small waiting room off the marbled lobby on CIA’s first floor. I joined them a few moments later. Earlier that day, the national security staff had formally approved an effort to kill or capture Anwar al-Awlaki. The discussion focused on that decision.

That crossed a significant threshold. Awlaki, though a committed enemy of the United States, was also an American citizen, raising significant questions about our responsibilities under the Constitution and our obligations to ensure the nation’s safety. Those issues had been carefully debated inside the government and among the agencies— the Justice Department had considered the question at length— and final approval from the president now had been given. * The members of Congress and their aides voiced strong support for the president’s decision. They appreciated the special process that was undertaken to ascertain the legality of the operation and were supportive of the outcome.

Later, Panetta described the President’s decision to add him to the kill list:

In February 2010, the president had agreed to add Anwar al-Awlaki to the list of approved targets, concluding that he was a high-level Al Qaeda operative, that he was directing attacks against the United States, and that he was thus a military enemy of his native country. As noted earlier, congressional officials were advised of this on February 5, 2011. Though the Awlaki case was different from most of those targeted in that he was an American citizen , the underlying rationale —that he was an enemy combatant waging war against the United States— was identical, and that position was supported by the Justice Department.

Panetta describes the moment the final decision to take him out:

On September 30, 2011, the Pentagon received word that U.S. operators had located Awlaki in Jawf Province, one of the more remote areas of Yemen. Awlaki was part of a small group of men eating their breakfast. Apparently hearing the drones overhead, they ran for their trucks, though not fast enough. The missiles were fired, the trucks destroyed. Awlaki and a second American, Samir Khan, were killed (Khan was not a target, and U.S. operators did not know he was there at the time).

Panetta then opines, briefly, on the ACLU suit against him:

I’m more often allied with the ACLU than not, but in this case I didn’t buy either its analysis or its assessment of Awlaki. He actively and repeatedly took action to kill Americans and instill fear. He did not just exercise his rights of speech, but rather worked directly to plant bombs on planes and in cars, specifically intending those to detonate on or above American soil. He devoted his adult life to murdering his fellow citizens, and he was continuing that work at the time of his death. His case was reviewed at the highest levels of American government, and no action was taken against him until it had been approved by the president and shared with the relevant members of Congress. A police officer who confronts an armed suspect has the right and obligation to shoot if that suspect is about to kill someone else, irrespective of that suspect’s nationality or citizenship. Surely the members of our military and intelligence forces have that same obligation. We too protect Americans, and Awlaki was an armed and dangerous suspect.

On a related topic, he hints at some internal discourse about the drone program:

Some of my colleagues in the Obama administration argued that these operations were far too secretive and that they should be conducted with full public explanation of each operation. One official even suggested that we send out press releases with each strike. I certainly agree with President Obama that we need to be far more transparent in the way we explain our drone policy. However, I also believe that certain operational details need to remain secret. The president , as commander in chief, needs a range of tools to defend the nation, and secrecy is one of those tools. In addition, drone strikes have been well managed within the executive branch. Changing the chain of command or creating a new interagency bureaucratic process would have sharply reduced our agility, eroded our effectiveness, and taken the pressure off the enemy. These operations fundamentally are driven by information, which can change or disappear in moments . Careful planning and then lightning speed in execution have been the keys to our success. Moreover, just because the operations weren’t announced publicly did not mean that they were kept secret within the government or that they were conducted with impunity. Congress and the White House were extensively informed. The director of national intelligence and the White House staff were briefed every morning after an operation . The key congressional committees received notifications on every operation and were even provided video when requested. Occasionally, when an especially high-value target came into view or where there were complicating circumstances, White House officials were consulted in advance of making a decision.