Targeted Killing

More on Over-Reading Imminence

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, February 13, 2013, 10:12 PM

Ever since I wrote my post yesterday morning about how people were over-reading the imminence language of the White Paper, I have received a number of emails and tweets and comments suggesting that I am under-reading it. Then I got this email from someone I will just describe as an informed government official:

I think you are right that people are over-reading the “imminence” language in the White Paper. A lot of attention has been focused on the statement that “an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack . . . does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”  The key word there is “specific.”  We may often have clear and concrete information that an individual is continually engaged in planning attacks against the United States, yet not know what those attacks specifically are or when they will take place.  The White Paper discusses the validity of a strike against a person who is “an operational leader continually planning attacks against U.S. persons or interests,” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”  A person who is not such an operational leader, or who does not pose an imminent threat, is not targetable under this rationale.  The further discussion in the White Paper talks about what kinds of evidence could be used to meet that standard---but that is the standard that the White Paper assumes will be met.

The key point, it seems to me, lies in my correspondent's final sentence. That is, like me, my correspondent reads the White Paper's discussion of past terrorist planning not as an additional, independent basis for targeting him---as Kevin Jon Heller suggests---but as a a mode of evaluating whether or not a potential target is personally and continually planning attacks.