Hardball | February 05, 2013
>>> welcome back to "hardball." the legal and moral debate about the use of drones has burst into the public in a big way after nbc 's michael isikoff reported on a justice department memo that gives the u.s. legal justification for targeting american citizens abroad. according to that memo an american can be killed without judicial review if it's determined he or she is a senior operations official in al qaeda . that was the case in 2011 when a drone strike killed anwar al al lack can i. eric holder defended the memo and the process behind it.
>> one of the things i want to make sure everybody understands is that our primary concern is to keep the american people safe, but to do so in a way that's consistent with our laws and consistent with our values. we say that we only take these kinds of actions when there's an imminent threat , when capture is not feasible, and when we were confident that we're doing so in a way that's consistent with federal and international law .
>> well, civil liberties advocates have reacted to that strongly saying the process is clouded in secrecy and the legal justifications are murky at best. for example there's the question of how it's determined who should be on the government's hit list. according to the memo, quote, it's up to an informed high-level official of the u.s. government who, quote, has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the united states , close quote. nbc investigative correspondent michael isikoff broke the story and robin wright is a tremendous scholar at the woodrow wilson center here in washington and also the u.s. institute of peace and i respect her tremendously as a reporter as i do this correspondent, michael isikoff . so you broke the story. you found this memo. what did it tell you or tell us? a lot of our people are progressives, they're concerned about this. it's one of those areas where there's a real tradeoff you have to do. catch the bad guys , respect american values .
>> this has been one of the most secretive policies of the obama administration, the use of drones, and controversial. it's been expansive. the drone strikes have dramatically increased under president obama .
>> a drone is an unmanned vehicle that goes into a place, drops a bomb, and comes back.
>> and missiles attached that can be used to kill the target. now, where it gets most controversial is when you talk about american citizens, and they have acknowledged that they are using drones in select cases against american citizens, and they have outlined publicly, attorney general holder last year gave a speech outlining publicly what the legal standards were for use of drones against american citizens or lethal operations against american citizens. the significance of the memo is if you read the memo closely, it provides considerable more detail than was in holder's speech when he outlined what the legal framework was, and as you can see in some of the language you quoted, the standards are a bit more expansive and a bit more -- there's a bit more leeway for policymakers than was let on in their public statements, and in particular that standard of imminent threat of a violent attack.
>> let me go to --
>> when you read the memo it's a bit --
>> i know. it's always tough to get intel right. intel can be wrong as we learned in iraq. let me ask you about the prints. here. if someone joins an army that's determined to destroy the united states or re-establish the caliphate or hover you want to put it, is that person still an american? that's a great question. are they still americans if they're taking up arms against the united states ?
>> legally they're still americans . there are americans that have engaged in terrorist attacks within the united states . that's not the issue. the problem is the standards are rather subjective. it leaves us vulnerable to someone making a decision that's this sensitive on the basis of what may be partial --
>> suppose we find out that somebody with pretty good certitude is out to get us, they're involved with bombing our people, killing americans in uniform or not, what are we supposed to do?
>> that's the big problem. the bottom line is we're going through a tremendous change in the nature of we're shifting to a period where we're looking how to fight wars that do not involve troops on the ground. we're using drones or unmanned aircraft and there's a whole change of them, and special forces that go in in strategic operations. the problem with the difference between osama bin laden and anwar allah can i is bin laden was in one place for a long period of time that allowed special forces to train, figure out how to deal --
>> we saw the movie.
>> anwar al awlaki was moving around. that's the pattern of most of the extremist that the united states is trying to find and confront. and so drones have become the fast action response in a way that you can't use special forces . it would have taken a very long time to get in and put troops on the ground to get --
>> michael, what are the politics? what are the sensitivities? i think i know what they are. how do you treat an american as a bad guy and he or she still gets rights.
>> one of the reasons it's getting traction today is less because of the policy as opposed to the secrecy that the obama administration has adopted in explaining --
>> are they afraid of aclu lawyers getting involved?
>> like all administrations, they believe they're doing the right thing and they don't want to share their internal thought processes with the public, but we had these huge battles during the bush years over the torture memos and other --
>> who is making the call? the attorney general, the head of the cia? who makes the call when we send in a drone. is it the army, the cia, is it the attorney general?
>> a lot of recent reporting has shown it's actually barack obama himself --
>> through the sc.
>> he is the informed high-level official --
>> does he have to give an official finding? does he have to have a finding? does he have to --
>> there's a finding that supports the policy, but i don't know that he needs --
>> does he have fingerprints when he makes one of these decisions like --
>> not public ones. in fact, they won't discuss the public -- deliberations at all. listen, until last year they wouldn't acknowledge the drone policy existed.
>> can you tell from your reporting if there's any conflict of conscience within the administration or they agree we need to do this in the war we're in now?
>> look at panetta's comments to chuck todd the other day on "meet the press" in which he said making these decisions about who should die and who should not, who should get targeted, were really tough ones and he agonized about that. that ought to give you a clue these are not all open and shut cases.
>> i think leon is a conscientious guy. he goes to church every day. i think sometimes you have to do things that are not nice. we're fighting a war.
>> i don't think --
>> it's a tough one for me. robin, i'm on the tough side of this one. i think we have to fight our enemies but great reporting. great disclosure. we ought to know what we're doing. michael isikoff , thank you, and thank you. great to have you at nbc and robin wright , one of my favorite correspondents.
>>> up next, chris christie 's poll numbers up through the roof. he was on letterman and he's making the jokes about his own weight eating a doughnut. that's ahead, and this is "hardball," the place for