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Trump’s Secret Rules for Killings Abroad

Drone Hangar
Drone Hangar
Hina Shamsi,
Director, ACLU National Security Project
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December 21, 2017

Perhaps Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most prescient and powerful speech was one he gave in 1967, called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In that speech, during a generation-defining civil rights struggle, Dr. King explained that he could not raise his voice for nonviolence at home “without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

He illuminated the consequences of the Vietnam War from the perspective of victims — the Vietnamese people whose lives, families, crops, and villages our country destroyed. He connected “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” and said we could not defeat them if we put machines, profit, and property rights above people. And he warned that unless Americans had a “true revolution of values,” which required us to question the fairness and justice of our past and present policies, we would have endless war in multiple countries “beyond Vietnam,” with all the harms to human rights that war entails.

It is, in no small part, with homage to these principles that the ACLU has worked for years to provide transparency and accountability for America’s lethal force policies abroad. As part of that work, we filed a lawsuit today to force disclosure of the Trump administration’s new, secret killing rules. These new rules reportedly loosen an Obama-era policy that helped entrench a new reality of secret, lethal American operations, but still sought to minimize civilian deaths and injuries.

For too long, our nation’s institutions — the executive branch, Congress, and the courts — have failed to heed Dr. King’s call to restrain war and provide meaningful accountability and reparations to victims. Now, the Trump administration is killing people in multiple countries, with strikes taking place at a virtually unprecedented rate—in some countries, the number has doubled or tripled in Trump’s first year in office. The U.S. is conducting strikes in recognized wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, but also in operations governed by the secret rules whose public release our new lawsuit demands — those conducted outside “areas of active hostilities” in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere. Untold, officially unrecognized numbers of civilians have died and continue to die at increasing rates. Most strikes take place in majority-Muslim countries, and most of the civilians killed are brown or Black.

Many of the countries in which our government is killing people are also subject to the Muslim ban — meaning, the Trump administration is cruelly excluding people fleeing violence it has helped cause. At the same time, it refuses to officially disclose critically important information about where it is conducting strikes, against whom, and with what consequences. Unlike in the Vietnam War, when we had a military draft and troops on the ground, our nation now often kills people remotely and in secret with machines — drones — that pose less risk to our own forces.

Perhaps that’s why there is no end in sight to the human suffering our government is causing to so many of our fellow human beings. Perhaps we need to learn anew Dr. King’s lesson:

[T]he privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters].

Two recent must-read articles help us. The first is a groundbreaking New York Times investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, who reviewed U.S. airstrikes in Iraq from 2014, when the war against ISIS began, to December 2016. They found that the U.S. military killed civilians 31 times more often than it admitted. Khan and Gopal illuminate their investigation with the heart-wrenching account of Bassim Razzo, whose house the U.S. military deliberately and wrongly targeted, killing his wife and daughter, and to whom the army then offered an insultingly low amount as compensation. It is hard to read the article without feeling rage and grief at what our nation has wrought.

In the second piece, Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper, national security officials in the Obama administration, respond to the New York Times investigation, grappling with that administration’s killing policies and their role in implementing them. They admit that even as the Obama administration stopped using the “global war on terror” nomenclature, it nevertheless kept its infrastructure in place, and safeguards to protect civilians were not enough. Nor were its pledges to provide transparency and reparations adequate. It is all-too-rare for government officials to admit they fell short. Malley and Pomper’s analysis and recommendations are important for that reason and because they acknowledge that without change, “an increasing number of innocent lives will suffer.”

We remain far from where we must be.

Back in 1967, Dr. King spoke with moral clarity in “Beyond Vietnam,” even though he knew it would be controversial among his allies, and even though he risked alienating President Johnson, whose support he needed in the ongoing civil rights struggle. For Dr. King, there was an imperative: “If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.” These were the words of an American Nobel Peace Prize winner, during a time of war.

In 2009, President Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, he secretly approved rules — which became public only in response to ACLU litigation — that wrongly used legal standards that apply in actual wars to kill terrorism suspects in places where the U.S. was not at war, with an overlay of policy safeguards to protect against civilian harm. He committed this country to ever more militaristic responses in ever more countries, regardless of whatever reluctance he might have felt. Wrongful killings and civilian deaths were the inevitable result.

As I’ve detailed before, Trump’s new secret killing rules take us further down the “long, dark, and shameful corridors” of which Dr. King spoke, where the limits of war as we know it could virtually dissolve, and more civilians will certainly die. These new rules must be made public so we can all better grapple with the harm our government is causing — and bring an end to it.

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