On Monday, John Brennan gave the clearest and most detailed exegesis of the Obama Administration’s doctrine of targeted killings. Brennan addressed the legal and ethical justifications for drone strikes, as well as their efficacy. Although the speech in many ways built on previous speeches delivered by Harold Koh (State), Eric Holder (Justice), Jeh Johnson (Defense), and Stephen Preston (CIA), I noticed some changes in emphasis that are worth exploring.
As a first point, Brennan made a point of explaining what the IHL requirement of “military necessity” means – in particular “the requirement that the target have definite military value.” It seems to me that this classical definition of military necessity is often overlooked by international lawyers. The confusion stems from the fact that the concept of necessity exists in almost every legal regime, but it operates differently in each context. Necessity in criminal law means something different than necessity in the Law of Armed Conflict. In the former, it means something like “no other alternative” or “least restrictive means,” but in the latter it means that there is a military rationale (i.e. an expected military advantage to be gained) for the attack. That technical meaning for military necessity goes back at least as far as Francis Lieber.
Second, Brennan said that the US was aware of the fact that its legal arguments in this context would establish precedents – presumably under customary law – and that the US was cognizant of the fact that our adversaries would then be following these rules in their deployment of drones against us. This showed some sensitivity to what Jeremy Waldron, in the recent TK volume published by OUP, has called a “neutral principle.”
Third, Brennan’s general discussion of capture (if feasible) was couched as a policy preference, not an obligation under international law. He was clear that there is no obligation under international law to attempt capture first (a bit of a contentious point with some human rights lawyers). I think there was some confusion on this point after Holder’s speech at Northwestern, where Holder discussed the duty to capture. If I understood Brennan correctly, the duty to capture (if feasible) only applies to citizens, like Anwar al-Awlaki, though he neither identified the source of this requirement nor did he explicitly state that the duty to capture applies as a Constitutional matter to citizens. But presumably it is a constitutional norm stemming from Tennessee v. Garner and its progeny. And presumably the requirement only applies outside of a traditional hot battlefield. For my part, I wish he had been more explicit on these points.
As a final point, Brennan’s account of what constitutes a significant threat, and implicitly whether it is an imminent threat or not, was more convincing than what Holder said. Brennan distinguished between hypothetical threats and actual threats – and excluded situations including “the mere possibility that a member of al-Qa’ida might try to attack us at some point in the future.” To my ear, that sounds narrower and more convincing than Holder’s account, which emphasized (and maybe even over-emphasized) the use of force in its preemptive and preventive forms, both of which are controversial under international law.