The White House Tuesday found itself under
growing fire for its policy of killing Americans suspected of
operating as terrorists in foreign countries just as its chief
counterterrorism expert faces confirmation hearings to become
director of the CIA.
John Brennan, who is US President Barack Obama's counterterrorism advisor, is to go before a Senate panel on Thursday for his first grilling. Brennan is the chief architect of the use of armed drones to target al-Qaeda operatives around the world.
The issue of targetted killings against US citizens abroad stirred alive Monday with the release of a so-called White Paper in which the Department of Justice outlined the policy, which is directed at US citizens suspected of having high level roles in al-Qaeda. The paper, which was not classified, was obtained by NBC news on Monday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney spent most of the daily press briefing defending the policy, saying that Congress had authorized "all necessary military force" in the fight against al-Qaeda.
"These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," he said.
The policy in fact became public knowledge in April 2010, when the White House placed the first known US citizen, Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, on a kill list to be carried out by the CIA. The cleric was killed in September 2011 in Yemen by a drone strike, followed by another lethal attack on his 16-year-old son two weeks later.
Attorney General Eric Holder in March 2012 explained the policy in a public speech, saying such action required approval from the top levels of government and was "among the gravest that government leaders can face."
Publication of the document this week renewed focus on the policy, provoking criticism from several sides. Guardian newspaper columnist Glen Greenwald called the policy "Orwellian" and said it represented "the most extremist power any political leader can assert."
A group of 11 senators - three Republicans and eight Democrats - have sent a letter to President Barack Obama demanding access to secret legal memos outlining the justification for targeting US citizens, according to Washington newspaper reports. The White Paper did not reveal the legal memos.
In a related development on Tuesday, a New York-based human rights organization threw new light on the CIA's rendition and black site torture programme, naming 54 countries that have either hosted secret prisons or helped in the transport or torture of terrorist suspects.
The Open Society Justice Initiative also detailed in the report the cases of 136 known victims who were secretly held, saying that the "responsibility for the abuses lies not only with the United States but with dozens of foreign governments that were complicit."
The sites and rendition programme were set up under former president George W Bush for the CIA to interrogate - often using torture - terrorist suspects captured abroad. While Obama ordered the sites closed and forbade torture, his administration has not prosecuted offenders from the Bush administration, which has drawn criticism from human rights advocates.
While some of the sites have been disclosed since the programme started, the report "Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition" offers the first comprehensive overview.
The programme began after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and, according to the report, continues in some form or other even today. The term "extraordinary rendition" refers to the transport of a suspect from one country to another under the radar of international justice systems.
The 54 governments identified in the report as either hosting a black site or helping to transport suspects include: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
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