Steve Bannon will be part of the team with the authority to order the assassination of American citizens in his role on the National Security Council under controversial rules drawn up by the Obama administration.
President Donald Trump’s chief strategist has been consolidating power in the White House during the administration’s chaotic opening days, and the former Breitbart News chief wound up with a seat on the inter-agency group that coordinates national security decisions without any Senate confirmation.
The NSC reshuffling, which came after Trump signed a widely condemned executive order Friday barring travelers from certain majority-Muslim nations, shuts out the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who will be invited to meetings only when their expertise is requested.
Obama’s national security advisor denounced the reshuffling as “stone-cold crazy,” and Robert Gates — who served as defense secretary under Obama and Bush and as CIA director and director of national intelligence — expressed concern that Trump had removed the only two officials who were required by law to advise the president on national security.
There’s another alarming reason to worry about Bannon’s increased national security powers.
Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born al Qaeda militant, was targeted for assassination or capture by a secretive panel of senior government officials during the Obama administration and killed five years ago in a CIA airstrike in Yemen.
The panel that ordered Awlaki killed was a subset of the National Security Council, according to government officials who spoke anonymously to Reuters after the September 2011 drone strike.
No law establishes the panel’s existence or governs its decisions, and there is no public record of its operations or decisions.
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), who was then the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, walked reporters through the process of targeting Awlaki, which he said began in the NSC and moved to the White House.
“The National Security Council does the investigation, they have lawyers, they review, they look at the situation, you have input from the military, and also, we make sure that we follow international law,” Ruppersberger told Reuters in 2011.
The Obama administration believed Awlaki — whose 8-year-old daughter was killed Sunday in Yemen, in the first military raid carried out under Trump — was a key figure for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The president’s role in ordering or approving a decision to target a U.S. citizen isn’t clear, according to the Reuters report, but officials said Obama was not required to personally approve Awlaki’s killing — although his objection would have overruled the decision.
The targeting recommendations were drawn up by a group of mid-level NSC and agency officials and then handed over to NSC “principals” — or cabinet secretaries and intelligence chiefs — and lawyers from the Justice Department were consulted before targeting Awlaki, according to Reuters.
Attorneys justified the decision under the congressional authorization of force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and they argued that international law permits such killing in defense of national security.
David Barron, a former Obama Justice Department official and now a federal appeals court judge, concluded Awlaki could be killed if he was actively plotting attacks against the U.S. and its allies — although he could find no statutory or constitutional authorization.
“As we understand the facts, the U.S. citizen in question has gone overseas and become part of the forces of an enemy with which the United States is engaged in an armed conflict,” Barron wrote. “That person is engaged in continual planning and direction of attacks upon U.S. persons from one of the enemy’s overseas bases of operations; the U.S. government does not know precisely when such attacks will occur; and a capture operation would be infeasible.”
Awlaki is believed to be the only American citizen targeted for capture or death for alleged terrorist involvement, although at least 10 U.S. nationals have been killed in drone attacks — which the government has said were mostly by accident.