In the USA...
February 5, 2013
Obama Urges Congress to Act to Stave Off Cuts
By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and JACKIE CALMES
WASHINGTON — President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to quickly pass a new package of limited spending cuts and tax increases to head off substantial across-the-board reductions to domestic and military spending set to begin on March 1, but his appeal for more revenue was dismissed by Republicans.
Trying to gain the upper hand in the latest fiscal clash, Mr. Obama said Congress should delay the reductions for at least a few months to give lawmakers a chance to negotiate a full deficit reduction package that permanently resolves the threat of a so-called sequester.
“They should at least pass a smaller package of spending cuts and tax reforms that would delay the economically damaging effects of the sequester for a few more months,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday afternoon in the White House briefing room. He said there was no reason to put at risk “the jobs of thousands of Americans.”
The president said the economy, which unexpectedly contracted at the end of last year, had begun to recover slowly. But he warned that continuing fights over taxes and spending threaten to delay or derail that improvement.
“We’ve also seen the effects that political dysfunction can have,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve made progress. And I still believe we can finish the job with a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, mocked the president’s demands to close tax loopholes, calling them “gimmicky tax hikes” and said, “It’s time for Washington Democrats to get real.” House Republicans noted that they had already passed their own plans to avoid the sequester.
With the deadline looming, each party is eager to blame the other for consequences that could include thousands of layoffs at military contractors, service reductions in programs for the needy and a new economic slump.
Mr. Obama, who missed a deadline this week to submit his annual budget to Congress, acknowledged on Tuesday that a broader deficit agreement is unlikely to be reached by the March deadline. He provided no details about the tens of billion of dollars in spending cuts and tax adjustments that he wants Congress to pass quickly. More specifics could come when he delivers his State of the Union address next Tuesday.
“While it’s critical for us to cut wasteful spending, we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” the president said, returning to fiscal issues after several weeks focused on gun control and immigration. “I still believe that we can finish the job with a balanced mix of spending cuts and more tax reform.”
Without action in the next three weeks, federal law will set off automatic cuts worth about $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Mr. Obama and Republicans in Congress designed the cuts in 2011 to be devastating as a way to prod passage of a more thoughtful deficit reduction approach, but no agreement has been reached.
Mr. Obama spoke as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its annual economic report with the latest 10-year projections for the annual federal budget deficits. It provided some fodder to critics on the left and some economists who say that Washington’s continued emphasis on immediate deficit reduction is constraining economic growth, though the budget office said lower deficits would help the economy starting in 2014.
“The federal fiscal policy specified by current law will represent a drag on economic activity” this year and through 2017, the report said. It said that growth in 2013 “would be roughly 1 ½ percentage points faster than the agency now projects if not for the fiscal tightening.”
Conservative House Republicans, as a price for their vote to suspend the debt ceiling, last month demanded that their leaders allow the automatic cuts to go into force as scheduled unless alternatives could be found on time. So far, Republican leaders have held firm to that promise even with some Republicans expressing anxiety about the cuts to the Pentagon.
House Republicans last year passed two bills that would reduce domestic spending enough to avoid the automatic military cuts, although those bills expired with the last Congress. Speaker John A. Boehner on Tuesday called their proposals “common-sense cuts and reforms” that the president and his Democratic allies in the Senate could immediately accept.
Democrats say the cuts favored by House Republicans would unfairly target domestic programs, and Mr. Obama again insisted on Tuesday that any short-term action in the next several weeks must meet his demands for a balanced approach that also closes tax loopholes for wealthy citizens and industries.
Democrats in the Senate are divided on how to proceed in the coming fiscal negotiations with Republicans. Like Mr. Obama, Senate Democratic leaders want a three-month replacement bill, just long enough to move the showdown past other budget deadlines like March 27, when the current stopgap law financing the government expires, and April 15, when the Senate and House must produce budgets.
Senator Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, favors a yearlong agreement. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has a broader, $200 billion plan to shut down offshore tax havens and other loopholes. And Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, wants to defer any action on closing tax loopholes for the broader fight over taxes and spending.
“We are not going to have multiple bites at this apple,” Mr. Baucus said Tuesday.
The report from the Congressional Budget Office was its first fiscal analysis since the year-end deal between the White House and Congress that raised taxes on high incomes, and it projected that the deficit for this fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 would be $845 billion.
That would be the first deficit below $1 trillion in five years, since the financial crisis of 2008. It would be equal to 5.3 percent of the nation’s total output, or gross domestic product — about half of what the deficit was relative to the size of the weaker economy in fiscal year 2009 when Mr. Obama took office, but still higher than the roughly 3 percent level that many economists consider the maximum that is sustainable in a growing economy.
While the budget office forecast that annual deficits will decline significantly as the economy recovers, the budget office once again emphasized that the deficit will rise later in the decade, beginning in 2016, and continue do to so as the population ages and health care prices rise.
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.
February 5, 2013
Bipartisan House Plan Focuses on Gun Trafficking
By JEREMY W. PETERS
WASHINGTON — Members of both parties in the House outlined a plan on Tuesday to stiffen penalties on the illegal purchase and transportation of guns, a rare show of agreement on an issue where bipartisanship has been scarce.
Two Democrats and two Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced legislation that would create a dedicated federal anti-gun-trafficking law while further cracking down on people who buy firearms for someone else and lie about it on federal background check forms.
As the law is written now, “the penalties are so weak it’s like a slap on the hand,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York.
Their proposal closely mirrors one already introduced in the Senate. That bill has bipartisan support as well, a fact that has heartened gun-control supporters on Capitol Hill.
But even with new signs of greater bipartisan open-mindedness on gun control — the House majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, signaled support on Tuesday for a stronger background check system — lawmakers acknowledged the hurdles they face in getting any bill through both houses of Congress.
“For those who have deep concerns about the overreach of the federal government, I’m in that group,” Representative Scott Rigell of Virginia, a Republican sponsor of the measure, said as he tried to assuage concerns of those in Congress and across the country who are worried about a federal push to limit the right to bear arms.
“To the extent that people slow down and take a look at it, read it — unless you’re a gun trafficker, unless you’re a person who’s a straw purchaser, there’s really no problem with this,” Mr. Rigell said.
The debate over gun-control legislation has never broken down cleanly along partisan lines. And this pattern is especially evident now as a number of Senate Democrats from states like Alaska, Colorado, Montana and West Virginia face tough questions from constituents back home.
But the unveiling of the House legislation on Tuesday showed the flip side of that dynamic. There are many House Republicans who represent affluent suburban areas where voters view gun control in less absolute terms and are generally more open to stricter laws. This includes Mr. Rigell, who represents an area around Virginia Beach, and Representative Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, another sponsor of the bill, whose district includes the north and west suburbs of Philadelphia.
Mr. Meehan, who was on hand for the announcement on Tuesday, said he planned to begin reaching out to other Republicans soon. “We will begin the process of lining up the support of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, lost his 20-year-old nephew to gun violence in 2011 and is another sponsor of the anti-trafficking bill. When he spoke on Tuesday in support of it, he said Americans grieving everywhere were calling on Congress to act. “They are begging us to address this problem,” he said.
The companion bill in the Senate is being sponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, and Mark Steven Kirk, Republican of Illinois. Though it differs in some central ways from the House bill, it also would create a federal gun trafficking statute and strengthen penalties for lying on federal background check forms.
That bill is competing with a number of other gun control measures in the Senate, including another one focused on curbing trafficking. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has a bill that would create a federal gun trafficking statute. But unlike the others, Mr. Leahy’s focuses more on the buyer of the guns rather than the seller. He does not yet have a Republican co-sponsor.
Then there is the effort by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to ban the sale and manufacture of 157 types of semiautomatic weapons, as well as magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. And a group including Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, is preparing legislation that would allow for a more stringent system of background checks for firearms buyers.
Much of the agreement between Democrats and Republicans on gun control has been around strengthening background checks, and that has appeared to be the most likely prospect for approval early this year.
But anti-trafficking laws enjoy broad support from law enforcement agencies because they would help tackle a huge problem for police forces in major cities. Because of the country’s patchwork gun laws, trafficking has enabled the spread of guns from places where firearm restrictions are relatively few, like in the South, to places where they are stricter, like New York City and California.
President Obama, speaking before an array of law enforcement officials in Minneapolis on Monday, stressed the importance of such laws.
February 5, 2013
House G.O.P. Open to Residency for Illegal Immigrants
By ASHLEY PARKER
WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Tuesday staked out what they cast as a middle-ground option in the debate over immigration, pushing an approach that could include legal residency but not a path to citizenship — as their Democratic counterparts favor — for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
Republicans also signaled that they are open to the idea of breaking immigration legislation into several smaller bills, which would allow them to deal with the question of highly skilled workers, as well as a farmworker program, without addressing what Democrats and immigration advocates say is the larger issue of potential citizenship. Immigration advocates favor a comprehensive measure to enable them to use elements that have bipartisan backing to build support for broader legislation.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing exploring an overhaul of the immigration system — the first of several such hearings expected in the House — Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the committee, tried to frame what he called the question of the day: “Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?”
It was a question later echoed by Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas and the former chairman of the committee, when questioning Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio. “Do you see any compromise area between the current status quo and a path to citizenship for virtually all the 11 million who are illegal immigrants in the country today?” he asked.
Mr. Castro, whose twin brother, Representative Joaquín Castro, is a newly elected Democrat from Texas, said he saw the compromise as “a recognition that a path to citizenship will be earned citizenship,” meaning that illegal immigrants would be forced to learn English, and pay fines and back taxes before they could become citizens.
Representative Spencer Bachus, Republican of Alabama, turned to the question of how to approach an overhaul of the system when he said he thought the panelists could all agree that “it’s going to be a much easier lift to solve the problem of highly skilled workers.”
“When you take comprehensive, then we’re dealing with certain issues like full citizenship,” Mr. Bachus said. “And whatever else we disagree on, I think we would agree on that that’s a more toxic and contentious issue, granting full amnesty.”
But Representative Cedric L. Richmond, Democrat of Louisiana, countered that the only way to tackle immigration is through comprehensive legislation. “Why don’t we just get the skilled labor part done first?” Mr. Richmond asked. “Well, politically, and just being very practical about it, if we got the skilled labor part done first, do you think we would ever come behind it and finish the job? I think it has to be a comprehensive approach or we’ll never get to the hard part.”
Immigration advocates, who had been eagerly awaiting the hearing for an early hint of the tenor of the debate on immigration as it unfolds in the House, said the use of the word “amnesty” would most likely be a bad sign for those in favor of a comprehensive overhaul.
Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, tried to set the tone early — “I hope no one uses the term ‘illegal immigrants’ here today,” he said in his opening remarks. But the a-word, as immigration advocates have called “amnesty,” came up twice. In addition to Mr. Bachus, Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, also used the phrase: “This is not our country’s first foray into amnesty.” He expressed concern for “respect for the rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, used a speech on his legislative priorities beyond the fights over deficit reduction to try to soften his party’s position on immigration. Speaking at a research group downtown, he explicitly embraced offering illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children a pathway to legal residency and citizenship, a position he had opposed. And he endorsed in broad terms a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
“I’m pleased these discussions make border security, employment verification and creating a workable guest worker program an immediate priority. It’s the right thing to do for our families, for our security, and for our economy,” Mr. Cantor said. But he warned, “There are some who would rather avoid fixing the problem in order to save this as a political issue.”
Representative Raúl R. Labrador, Republican of Idaho, also challenged immigration advocates on the question of a political versus policy victory.
“If we want a political solution, you guys are going to insist on a pathway to citizenship,” he said. “You’re going to beat Republicans over the head on this issue. But if we want a policy solution, I think there’s good will here in the House of Representatives for us to come together, actually pass a pragmatic solution to the current problem that we have, and solve and modernize the immigration system for years to come.”
In a flurry of immigration legislation offered in recent days in the House, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow American citizens with foreign-born same-sex spouses or partners to obtain permanent resident visas, known as green cards, for them. Mr. Nadler’s proposal would allow a well-established same-sex couple to apply for a green card, avoiding any direct challenge to a federal law that bans recognition of gay marriage.
Julia Preston contributed reporting from New York, and Jonathan Weisman from Washington.
February 5, 2013
Lost Votes, Problem Ballots, Long Waits? Flaws Are Widespread, Study Finds
By ADAM LIPTAK
WASHINGTON — The flaws in the American election system are deep and widespread, extending beyond isolated voting issues in a few locations and flaring up in states rich and poor, according to a major new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The group ranked all 50 states based on more than 15 criteria, including wait times, lost votes and problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and the order often confounds the conventional wisdom.
In 2010, for instance, Mississippi ranked last over all. But it was preceded by two surprises: New York and California.
“Poor Southern states perform well, and they perform badly,” said Heather K. Gerken, a law professor at Yale and a Pew adviser. “Rich New England states perform well and badly — mostly badly.”
A main goal of the exercise, which grew out of Professor’s Gerken’s 2009 book, “The Democracy Index,” was to shame poor performers into doing better, she said.
“Peer pressure produces horrible things like Britney Spears and Justin Bieber and tongue rings,” Professor Gerken said. “But it also produces professional peer pressure.”
The project includes an interactive tool that allows rankings by individual criteria or clusters of them.
Some states, for instance, lost very few votes because of shortcomings in voting technology and voter confusion, with the best 10 reporting failure rates of 0.5 percent or less in 2008. In West Virginia, by contrast, the rate was 3.2 percent.
Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s secretary of state, said she was not happy with that result and would look closely at Pew’s data and methodology. But she added that “2012 went really well, even with Sandy,” referring to the hurricane that disrupted early voting. “We were humming,” she said.
“You’re only as good as your next election,” she added.
The Pew study focused on the 2008 and 2010 elections, the most recent ones for which comprehensive data were available.
The study also found wide variation in how easy registering to vote can be. North Dakota does not even require it, and Alabama and Kansas reported rejecting less than 0.05 percent of registration applications in 2008. But Pennsylvania and Indiana each rejected more than half of the registration applications they received in 2010.
On Election Day, the voting experience can also vary. The 10 states with the shortest waiting times at the polls in 2008 averaged six minutes, the study found. In South Carolina, the wait was more than an hour.
The shift to voting by mail, which now accounts for some 20 percent of all ballots cast, tends to eliminate lines. But it has also produced new problems, especially in places where mail voting has soared because the state does not require an excuse or a new ballot request for each election. Arizona and California, where voting by mail is commonplace, had among the highest rates of problems with voter registration and absentee ballots.
In 2010, California rejected absentee ballots 0.7 percent of the time, a higher rate than any other state.
Dean C. Logan, the registrar for Los Angeles County, said the rate was partly a byproduct of the popularity of voting by mail in California and partly a function of how the state defines rejected ballots. Its definition includes ballots that voters requested but that the Postal Service returned to election officials as undeliverable.
“Voter behavior is changing and evolving,” Mr. Logan said. Young people do not sign their names as consistently as older ones, he said, and mail delivery is becoming less reliable.
He also cautioned that statewide results can mask the fact that “the elections process is extremely decentralized.”
Colorado, where some 70 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail in 2012, rejected absentee ballots 0.4 percent of the time in 2010.
Pam Anderson, the clerk of Jefferson County, Colo., defended that rejection rate. “It’s not 10 percent, and it’s not zero,” she said. “We do a very rigorous signature verification process.”
Charles Stewart III, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Pew adviser, said that high provisional ballot rates were an important signal of potential trouble.
“Nationwide, a bit over 1 percent of voters are given a provisional ballot,” he said. “In Arizona in 2008, the rate was 6.5 percent. In the battleground state of Ohio, it was 3.6 percent. While these numbers may seem small, in a recount or election dispute, they would be huge.”
In both 2008 and 2010, Arizona had the highest rate of rejected provisional ballots, though the rate dropped to 0.8 percent in 2010 from 1.9 percent in 2008.
Tammy Patrick, an elections official in Maricopa County, Ariz., said that last year “65 percent of people voted by mail, which is grand.”
Ms. Patrick said that voting by mail gave voters the benefit of convenience, and also the ability to reflect on their choices. “We have a fairly long ballot,” she said, “and this allows the voter a full month to vote that ballot.”
But the trend also led to problems, Ms. Patrick said, partly as a result of grass-roots misinformation about whether and how such votes would be counted.
Many people voted by mail and nonetheless turned up at polling places just in case, where they would often cast provisional ballots. “We had a 20 percent increase in our provisional ballots over all,” Ms. Patrick said, and many of those ballots were rejected.
She said that the Pew data reflected “a piece of what we do,” but that the local political culture also played a role. “Arizonans don’t feel their elected officials represent them,” she said. “They don’t participate in their neighborhoods and civic activities. There’s a detachment in the sprawl.”
Professor Gerken said that other cultural factors may affect voting rates. “States in the Deep South with high obesity problems seem to be having a problem getting people to the polling place,” she said.
Absentee ballots from members of the military and Americans living overseas were also rejected at varying rates, the study found. In 2010, New York rejected a quarter of the 22,000 such ballots it received. Pennsylvania rejected just 2 percent of the 8,000 ballots it received.
Professor Stewart said the study should focus attention on the infrastructure of democracy.
“Among all important areas of public policy, election administration is probably the most episodic and prone to the problem of short attention spans,” he said. “What would the world be like if we only gave intense attention to education, corrections, transportation and public health problems for a one-week period every four years?”
February 5, 2013
Drone Strikes’ Dangers to Get Rare Moment in Public Eye
By ROBERT F. WORTH, MARK MAZZETTI and SCOTT SHANE
SANA, Yemen — Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen.
It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.
As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.
The killing of Mr. Jaber, just the kind of leader most crucial to American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda, was a reminder of the inherent hazards of the quasi-secret campaign of targeted killings that the United States is waging against suspected militants not just in Yemen but also in Pakistan and Somalia. Individual strikes by the Predator and Reaper drones are almost never discussed publicly by Obama administration officials. But the clandestine war will receive a rare moment of public scrutiny on Thursday, when its chief architect, John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, faces a Senate confirmation hearing as President Obama’s nominee for C.I.A. director.
From his basement office in the White House, Mr. Brennan has served as the principal coordinator of a “kill list” of Qaeda operatives marked for death, overseeing drone strikes by the military and the C.I.A., and advising Mr. Obama on which strikes he should approve.
“He’s probably had more power and influence than anyone in a comparable position in the last 20 years,” said Daniel Benjamin, who recently stepped down as the State Department’s top counterterrorism official and now teaches at Dartmouth. “He’s had enormous sway over the intelligence community. He’s had a profound impact on how the military does counterterrorism.”
Mr. Brennan, a former C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has taken a particular interest in Yemen, sounding early alarms within the administration about the threat developing there, working closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to gain approval for a secret C.I.A. drone base there that is used for American strikes, and making the impoverished desert nation a test case for American counterterrorism strategy.
In recent years, both C.I.A. and Pentagon counterterrorism officials have pressed for greater freedom to attack suspected militants, and colleagues say Mr. Brennan has often been a restraining voice. The strikes have killed a number of operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a deputy leader of the group, and the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
But they have also claimed civilians like Mr. Jaber and have raised troubling questions that apply to Pakistan and Somalia as well: Could the targeted killing campaign be creating more militants in Yemen than it is killing? And is it in America’s long-term interest to be waging war against a self-renewing insurgency inside a country about which Washington has at best a hazy understanding?
Several former top military and intelligence officials — including Stanley A. McChrystal, the retired general who led the Joint Special Operations Command, which has responsibility for the military’s drone strikes, and Michael V. Hayden, the former C.I.A. director — have raised concerns that the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen are increasingly targeting low-level militants who do not pose a direct threat to the United States.
In an interview with Reuters, General McChrystal said that drones could be a useful tool but were “hated on a visceral level” in some of the places where they were used and contributed to a “perception of American arrogance.”
Mr. Brennan has aggressively defended the accuracy of the drone strikes, and the rate of civilian casualties has gone down considerably since the attacks began in Yemen in 2009. He has also largely dismissed criticism that the drone campaign has tarnished America’s image in Yemen and has been an effective recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
“In fact, we see the opposite,” Mr. Brennan said during a speech last year. “Our Yemeni partners are more eager to work with us. Yemeni citizens who have been freed from the hellish grip of A.Q.A.P. are more eager, not less, to work with the Yemeni government.”
Christopher Swift, a researcher at Georgetown University who spent last summer in Yemen studying the reaction to the strikes, said he thought Mr. Brennan’s comments missed the broader impact.
“What Brennan said accurately reflected people in the security apparatus who he speaks to when he goes to Yemen,” Mr. Swift said. “It doesn’t reflect the views of the man in the street, of young human rights activists, of the political opposition.”
Though Mr. Swift said he thought that critics had exaggerated the role of the strikes in generating recruits for Al Qaeda, “in the political sphere, the perception is that the U.S. is colluding with the Yemeni government in a covert war against the Yemeni people.”
“Even if we’re winning in the military domain,” Mr. Swift said, “drones may be undermining our long-term interest in the goal of a stable Yemen with a functional political system and economy.”
A Parallel Campaign
American officials have never explained in public why the C.I.A. and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command are carrying out parallel drone campaigns in Yemen. Privately, however, they describe an arrangement that has evolved since the frantic, ad hoc early days of America’s war there.
The first strike in Yemen ordered by the Obama administration, in December 2009, was by all accounts a disaster. American cruise missiles carrying cluster munitions killed dozens of civilians, including many women and children. Another strike, six months later, killed a popular deputy governor, inciting angry demonstrations and an attack that shut down a critical oil pipeline.
Not long afterward, the C.I.A. began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that the first time the C.I.A. used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in September 2011.
Since then, officials said, the C.I.A. has been given the mission of hunting and killing “high-value targets” in Yemen — the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who Obama administration lawyers have determined pose a direct threat to the United States. When the C.I.A. obtains specific intelligence on the whereabouts of someone on its kill list, an American drone can carry out a strike without the permission of Yemen’s government.
There is, however, a tighter leash on the Pentagon’s drones. According to American officials, the Joint Special Operations Command must get the Yemeni government’s approval before launching a drone strike. This restriction is in place, officials said, because the military’s drone campaign is closely tied to counterterrorism operations conducted by Yemeni special operations troops.
Yemen’s military is fighting its own counterinsurgency battle against Islamic militants, who gained and then lost control over large swaths of the country last year. Often, American military strikes in Yemen are masked as Yemeni government operations.
Moreover, Mr. Obama demanded early on that each American military strike in Yemen be approved by a committee in Washington representing the national security agencies. The C.I.A. strikes, by contrast, resulted from a far more closed process inside the agency. Mr. Brennan plays a role in overseeing all the strikes.
There have been at least five drone strikes in Yemen since the start of the year, killing at least 24 people. That continues a remarkable acceleration over the past two years in a program that has carried out at least 63 airstrikes since 2009, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site that collects public data on the strikes, with an estimated death toll in the hundreds. Many of the militants reported killed recently were very young and do not appear to have had any important role with Al Qaeda.
“Even with Al Qaeda, there are degrees — some of these young guys getting killed have just been recruited and barely known what terrorism means,” said Naji al Zaydi, a former governor of Marib Province, who has been a vocal opponent of Al Qaeda and a supporter of Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Mr. Zaydi, a prominent tribal figure from an area that has long been associated with members of Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, pointed out that the identity and background of these men were no mystery in Yemen’s interlinked tribal culture.
A Deadly Ride
In one recent case, on Jan. 23, a drone strike in a village east of Sana killed a 21-year-old university student named Saleem Hussein Jamal and his cousin, a 33-year-old teacher named Ali Ali Nasser Jamal, who happened to have been traveling with him. According to relatives and neighbors of the two men, they were driving home from a nearby town called Jahana when five strangers offered to pay them for a ride. The drone-fired missile hit the vehicle, a twin-cab Toyota Hilux, just outside the village of Masnaa at about 9 p.m. The strangers were later identified in Yemeni news reports as members of Al Qaeda, though apparently not high-ranking ones.
After the strike, villagers were left to identify their two dead relatives from identity cards, scraps of clothing and the license plate of Mr. Jamal’s Toyota; the seven bodies were shredded beyond recognition, as cellphone photos taken at the scene attest. “We found eyes, but there were no faces left,” said Abdullah Faqih, a student who knew both of the dead cousins.
Although most Yemenis are reluctant to admit it publicly, there does appear to be widespread support for the American drone strikes that hit substantial Qaeda figures like Mr. Shihri, a Saudi and the affiliate’s deputy leader, who died in January of wounds received in a drone strike late last year.
Al Qaeda has done far more damage in Yemen than it has in the United States, and one episode reinforced public disgust last May, when a suicide bomber struck a military parade rehearsal in the Yemeni capital, killing more than 100 people.
Moreover, many Yemenis reluctantly admit that there is a need for foreign help: Yemen’s own efforts to strike at the terrorist group have often been compromised by weak, divided military forces; widespread corruption; and even support for Al Qaeda within pockets of the intelligence and security agencies.
Yet even as both Mr. Brennan and Mr. Hadi, the Yemeni president, praise the drone technology for its accuracy, other Yemenis often point out that it can be very difficult to isolate members of Al Qaeda, thanks to the group’s complex ties and long history in Yemen.
This may account for a pattern in many of the drone strikes: a drone hovers over an area for weeks on end before a strike takes place, presumably waiting until identities are confirmed and the targets can be struck without anyone else present.
In the strike that killed Mr. Jaber, the cleric, that was not enough. At least one drone had been overhead every day for about a month, provoking high anxiety among local people, said Aref bin Ali Jaber, a tradesman who is related to the cleric. “After the drone hit, everyone was so frightened it would come back,” Mr. Jaber said. “Children especially were affected; my 15-year-old daughter refuses to be alone and has had to sleep with me and my wife after that.”
Anger at America
In the days afterward, the people of the village vented their fury at the Americans with protests and briefly blocked a road. It is difficult to know what the long-term effects of the deaths will be, though some in the town — as in other areas where drones have killed civilians — say there was an upwelling of support for Al Qaeda, because such a move is seen as the only way to retaliate against the United States.
Innocents aside, even members of Al Qaeda invariably belong to a tribe, and when they are killed in drone strikes, their relatives — whatever their feelings about Al Qaeda — often swear to exact revenge on America.
“Al Qaeda always gives money to the family,” said Hussein Ahmed Othman al Arwali, a tribal sheik from an area south of the capital called Mudhia, where Qaeda militants fought pitched battles with Yemeni soldiers last year. “Al Qaeda’s leaders may be killed by drones, but the group still has its money, and people are still joining. For young men who are poor, the incentives are very strong: they offer you marriage, or money, and the ideological part works for some people.”
In some cases, drones have killed members of Al Qaeda when it seemed that they might easily have been arrested or captured, according to a number of Yemeni officials and tribal figures. One figure in particular has stood out: Adnan al Qadhi, who was killed, apparently in a drone strike, in early November in a town near the capital.
Mr. Qadhi was an avowed supporter of Al Qaeda, but he also had recently served as a mediator for the Yemeni government with other jihadists, and was drawing a government salary at the time of his death. He was not in hiding, and his house is within sight of large houses owned by a former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and other leading figures.
Whatever the success of the drone strikes, some Yemenis wonder why there is not more reliance on their country’s elite counterterrorism unit, which was trained in the United States as part of the close cooperation between the two countries that Mr. Brennan has engineered. One member of the unit, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed great frustration that his unit had not been deployed on such missions, and had in fact been posted to traffic duty in the capital in recent weeks, even as the drone strikes intensified.
“For sure, we could be going after some of these guys,” the officer said. “That’s what we’re trained to do, and the Americans trained us. It doesn’t make sense.”
Robert F. Worth reported from Sana, and Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane from Washington.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 5, 2013
An earlier version of a photo caption with this article misstated the given name of a former official at the State Department who said John O. Brennan wielded great influence in the counterterrorism field. He is Daniel Benjamin, not David.
February 5, 2013
Report on Targeted Killing Whets Appetite for Less Secrecy
By SCOTT SHANE and CHARLIE SAVAGE
WASHINGTON — Early in his first term, President Obama rejected the vehement protests of the Central Intelligence Agency and ordered the public disclosure of secret Justice Department legal opinions on interrogation and torture that had been written in the administration of George W. Bush.
In the case of his own Justice Department’s legal opinions on assassination and the “targeted killing” of terrorism suspects, however, Mr. Obama has taken a different approach. Though he entered office promising the most transparent administration in history, he has adamantly refused to make those opinions public — notably one that justified the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed an American, Anwar al-Awlaki. His administration has withheld them even from the Senate and House intelligence committees and has fought in court to keep them secret, making any public debate on the issue difficult.
But with the disclosure on Monday of a Justice Department document offering a detailed legal analysis of the targeted killing of Americans, the barricades of secrecy have been breached. Just as leaks of interrogation memos in 2004 under President Bush ignited a fierce public debate over torture, the report on the so-called white paper by NBC News instantly touched off a renewed, and better informed, public discussion about whether and when a president can order the execution of a citizen based on secret intelligence and without any trial.
The Justice Department prepared the white paper, an unclassified, 16-page document, to brief Congressional oversight committees in lieu of providing lawmakers with the far longer, classified memorandum that justified the killing of Mr. Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Sunni Muslim cleric who joined Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and died in an American drone strike there in September 2011. But the paper dovetails with the legal arguments in that still-secret document, as described to The New York Times in October 2011 by people who have read it.
In short, the Justice Department argued that it was lawful for the government to kill an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” decided that the target was a ranking figure in Al Qaeda who posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if his capture was not feasible. While the administration’s basic legal conclusions had already been aired — including in speeches by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and other officials — the white paper provided a far more detailed legal justification.
Some human rights groups dismissed it in language reminiscent of their critiques of the Bush administration’s legal opinions on torture, taking particular aim at its flexible definition of what might constitute an “imminent” threat and the lack of any outside check on its claimed authority.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the paper “chilling.” A spokeswoman for Amnesty International said there was increasing evidence that American practices were “unlawful, violating the fundamental human right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life.”
But Matthew Waxman, a Columbia University law professor who worked on detainee affairs in the Bush administration, defended the reasoning as “careful and narrow,” saying it was limited to cases in which “there are no viable alternatives.”
“I see a very serious and reasonable effort to translate traditional legal principles to account for the context of this war,” he said.
The Times, which is pursuing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the Awlaki memo, in December filed a separate request under that act for the unclassified white paper after it was discussed in a Congressional letter. On Jan. 23, the administration declined to disclose it, portraying it as a “draft” and citing an exemption for documents that are part of the executive branch’s “deliberative process.”
Yet on Tuesday, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, pressed by reporters to explain why the Obama administration would not release the classified Awlaki memorandum, suggested that reporters should be satisfied with the now-leaked white paper, in addition to speeches by administration officials.
“I think the discussions that you’ve seen in public, including in the white paper, have to do with general principles that are applied on this important matter,” Mr. Carney said, adding, “The fact of the matter is that the white paper that we’ve discussed was provided — was developed and produced in an unclassified manner precisely so that those general principles could be spelled out and elaborated.”
While Mr. Carney conceded that the government still had not officially disclosed even the white paper, he noted that it was now “online.”
Separately on Tuesday, when asked why the Bush memos could be released while the Obama memos were withheld, Mr. Holder suggested cautiously that it might be possible to make more material public.
“We’ll have to, you know, look at this and see how — what it is we want to do with those memos,” he said, while also noting “a real concern” about revealing information that could “put at risk the very mechanisms that we use to try to keep the American people safe, which is our primary responsibility.”
While lawmakers on the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees had seen the white paper, several used the disclosure to renew their call for the administration to lift its veil of secrecy.
Both Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration should give their committees the full opinion. Mr. Rogers said he agreed with the rationale for killing Mr. Awlaki, but called it “a bit ridiculous” that the memo had been withheld from lawmakers.
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said that while there were “clearly” some circumstances in which the president could order strikes on Americans, the government should make public more details of the standards it uses in making such decisions so there could be debate on “whether the president’s power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards.”
Some legal scholars said Tuesday that the Justice Department document does not provide enough information to permit a full assessment. Officials have said the Awlaki memorandum includes about 30 pages describing intelligence said to link him to attacks But the white paper lacks such context for its analysis.
Steve Vladeck, an American University law professor who specializes in national security issues, said the discussion engendered by the document obtained by NBC bolstered the case for disclosing the real memo.
“The more general the justification, the less convincing it is going to be,” he said. “So the ultimate problem with the white paper is that it cannot do what it needs to do, which is explain why in the case of Awlaki the United States government thought it literally did not have a choice.”