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Obama administration faces conundrum in weighing drone attack against U.S. terror suspect

February 11, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
The Obama administration confirmed that it is considering targeting a U.S. citizen in Pakistan, believed to be involved in plotting terrorist attacks against Americans, with a drone strike. Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times joins Judy Woodruff to offer background on the government’s disclosure and the debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In an unusually public exposure of an internal government debate, Obama administration officials confirmed they are deciding whether to target an American citizen living in Pakistan who is believed to be plotting terrorist attacks.

The disclosure comes as the administration considers the extent of the president’s powers amid new revelations about the technology behind unmanned drones, so often used to go after terrorists abroad.

For more, we turn to Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times, who wrote today’s story about the American citizen abroad. He’s also the author of “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, A Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.”

Mark Mazzetti, welcome back to the program.

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: Thanks for having me on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, who is the person they’re targeting and where is he or she?

MARK MAZZETTI: Actually, we don’t really know the answer to both questions. We don’t know the identity yet of the person that is under discussion.

And as we reported today, the person is in Pakistan, and the assumption is that he is in the western part of Pakistan in the mountains, which is traditionally sort of out of bounds for the Pakistani soldiers and for Pakistani policemen. And so that’s why the military — the Obama administration is debating whether to kill him vs. try to have the Pakistanis capture him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what has he done to make him a potential target?

MARK MAZZETTI: Again, it’s still — that’s a good question. There’s been some information in the last 24 hours that he was involved in attacks across the border in Afghanistan using IEDs. And that would sort of put him in the category of someone who potentially could be targeted, because, as Obama explained in May, they — the United States will target only people involved in ongoing attacks against Americans.

So, for someone to actually be considered targeted, to be targeted under the new rules, they would have to have some kind of a connection to attacks against Americans. And we believe it would be attacks against troops in Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what exactly is the debate that is going on? What’s the argument inside the administration on each side of this?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I mean, the real — the biggest part of the debate is the fact that this person is an American citizen.

And there’s this — it’s very rare and an extraordinary circumstance for a president to order the killing of an American citizen overseas. And the — four Americans have been killed during the Obama administration. And as the administration admitted last year, only one, they had deliberately tried to target.

So if they are going to make the deliberate decision to kill an American citizen, they have to get a sign-off from the Justice Department, and they have to really be quite confident that this is the right decision to sort of deny this person the due process. And so that’s the center of the debate.

But there’s other elements as well. Since President Obama announced these new rules and restrictions in May, he announced a preference to have the military vs. the CIA carry out drone strikes. The rub here is that, in Pakistan, it’s an entirely CIA operation. The Pakistani military — the Pakistani government will not allow the military to take over the mission because they want to still have the sort of veneer of secrecy that the CIA provides.

So there’s a few different elements here that make this sort of a policy conundrum for the administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this something — isn’t it unusual to have this debate out in the open like this?

MARK MAZZETTI: Yes, sure.

And it’s been apparently going on for months, but it only kind of — we got a glimpse of it last week when Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, really lit into the new rules that President Obama laid out in May, when he basically said that the rules are so restrictive, it’s making America less safe, and that people who were once able to be targeted cannot be targeted under the new rules.

So, then it sort of — a week later, a little less than a week later, it emerged sort of what Rogers was really talking about was in part the debate over this one individual.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if it’s been going on for months, doesn’t it risk alerting the enemy that they’re going to be targeted?

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, I think fact that it’s been going on for months probably indicates that there’s really a split over whether this would be worth it and whether this person is even someone important enough and dangerous enough to be targeted.

There was very little debate inside the Obama administration about Anwar al-Awlaki, the first American citizen to be killed during the Obama administration. There appears to be far greater debate about this individual.

I think that it also should be pointed out that it’s still very difficult to know — here we are almost a year later since the new rules were put in place — how the rules are being put into place, what the ground rules are, whether the rules are being followed.

There’s still so much secrecy involved in these programs. There has not been a great deal of transparency since President Obama announced these new rules in May. And so it’s hard to really judge as an outsider what is different now than it was before May of last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, do you get the sense that the administration is close to making a decision on this, or that this could go on for some time?

MARK MAZZETTI: It’s hard to know.

I mean, certainly, I’m sure they were not happy to have this aired out in public, that the internal workings of the debate are now reported in the press. And so it’s hard — certainly, this could go on for some time. Their argument was that this person might be — go to ground.

But, as we have pointed out, that — President Obama has made no secret of the fact that he will target remnants of al-Qaida or al-Qaida affiliates in Pakistan. So it wouldn’t necessarily be a huge surprise to this individual that the United States might be going after him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other quick thing, Mark Mazzetti. There’s also separately a report that the administration is looking at whether the president has the authority to expand targeting to al-Qaida-affiliated groups to so-called ISIS, the Iraq — al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria, now that al-Qaida central has split off from that group.

It’s a little bit complicated, but tell us in a nutshell what that’s about and where it’s headed.

MARK MAZZETTI: Well, it’s an interesting debate, because basically it goes back to the authorities that were instituted right after 9/11, when Congress gave the president broad authority to go — to basically go get the people responsible for 9/11.

Well, here we are so many years later, and those responsible for 9/11 have largely either been captured or killed, and al-Qaida as it existed on September 11, 2001, is very different and has all these different splinter groups. And so the question that now is presented is, is a group, this group ISIS that now, at least formally, is no longer aligned with al-Qaida, you know, does the president have the authority to go after them?

As the one story today acknowledged, it’s a little bit of an academic debate, because we don’t think there’s a huge momentum in the Obama administration to start doing lethal strikes in Syria or Iraq to take on this group. But it does really get to the issue of, you know, what are the authorities going to be going forward now that we’re out of the post-9/11 age and in this era where the threat is far different than it was so many years ago?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Following it all, Mark Mazzetti with The New York Times. Thank you.

MARK MAZZETTI: Thank you.