In February, Michael Isikoff, an NBC investigative journalist, broke the story about the Obama administration’s policy on drones by reporting on a secretive memo from the Justice Department that provided new information about the legal reasoning behind the policy. This week, in an interview in an MSNBC “Office Politics” segment with Alex Witt, Isikoff talked about the administration’s position since the papers’ revelation.
“They have shared the memos on this subject, on the killing of American citizens with the intelligence committees,” Isikoff said. ”The problem with that is they’re classified. The intelligence committee members can look at them in a classified skiff, they can’t take in staff, they can’t write down, they can’t talk about it after they’ve seen it. So in some ways the response to our story, which is to make these available to the intelligence communities, may actually have diminished the public debate on this issue because now the people who have seen the memos can’t talk about them. “
Isikoff, a former Newsweek magazine reporter, said the first test as to whether a president can use lethal force to kill an American citizen is: Does that citizen engage in activity that poses an imminent threat to American citizens?
“Imminent to you and I, to most people, means something is about to happen,” he said. “They’ve got intelligence that this guy…is doing something that’s going to harm us. Yet you read the white paper and you see that ‘imminence’ has a somewhat elastic definition. It doesn’t mean, in their legal reasoning, that they have active intelligence in an ongoing plot. It may mean only that they’ve had intelligence of recent activities suggesting the individual was a plotter and so therefore it can be assumed that that person poses an imminent threat.”
He added it raised a whole host of questions, especially after the intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war.
“What do we mean by recent? What do we mean by activities? And taking a step back further, remember, this is all based on secret intelligence. This is all based on what the intelligence community is telling people. And if we learned anything from the Iraq-WMD debacle it is that we can’t always trust secret intelligence. And when you’re making decisions, life or death decisions, there’s a reason to have even more scrutiny.”
Isikoff also reflected on his time at Newsweek, which published its last print issue in December 2012. One of his stories for the publication, about White House intern Monica Lewinski, was held by editors in 1998.
“The higher the stakes, the more nervous the editors are. That’s a given. And when you are talking about wrongdoing or misconduct, or secret contact by the president, the stakes are bigger,” said Isikoff.
“Now of course, one of things that I laid out actually in that last article in Newsweek which ran in the last issue was actually the story that we finally—that I finally wanted to publish—was really triggered by my knowledge of the secret investigation of Ken Starr into the president’s relationship. It was not a story about the president’s relationship with Lewinsky. It was that there is a criminal investigation launched by a special prosecutor into the president’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And as I wrote in that issue, and as I had said in the hours and hours of internal debates at Newsweek, this is as much a story about Ken Starr as it is about Bill Clinton.”
Isikoff said he felt nostalgic about seeing the magazine that he’d read since he was a pre-teen, publish its last print issue.
“Newsweek was so much a part of the American journalistic landscape for so long and played such an important role in shaping public understanding of current events and the world, that to lose something like that is sad. “