Bombing of Cambodia Cited to Defend US Drone Strikes

A U.S. Justice Department document that says America can le­gally order the killing of its citizens if they are believed to be al-Qaida leaders uses the devastating and illegal bombing of Cam­bo­dia in the 1960s and ’70s to help make its case.

American broadcaster NBC News first reported on the “white pa­per”—a summary of classified mem­os by the U.S. Justice Depart­ment’s Of­fice of Legal Council—on Monday.

The 16-page paper makes a legal case for the U.S. government’s highly controversial use of un­manned drones to kill suspected terrorists, including some U.S. citizens. In making its argument, the docu­ment brings up the U.S.’ bombing of Cam­bodia—which claimed thousands of innocent lives in the pursuit of North Vietnamese forces—to ar­gue for the right to go after its enemies in neutral countries.

“The Department has not found any authority for the proposition that when one of the parties to an armed conflict plans and executes operations from a base in a new na­tion, an operation to engage the enemy in that location cannot be part of the original armed conflict,” the paper reads. “That does not appear to be the rule of the historical practice, for instance, even in a traditional international conflict.”

To help make its case, the Jus­tice Depart­ment cites an address then-U.S. State Depart­ment legal adviser John Stevenson delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970 regarding the U.S.’ ongoing military activity in Cambodia.

Mr. Stevenson, the white paper summarizes, argued “that in an international armed conflict, if a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent using its territory as a base of operations, the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state.”

In other words, Mr. Stevenson, speaking on the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, said history gave the U.S. the right to bomb a country that could not keep the U.S.’ enemies out.

The Justice Department is now us­ing that argument to help make its case for killing suspected al-Qaida leaders of U.S. citizenship abroad.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment.

Beginning in 1965, the U.S. bombed North Vietnamese forces taking refuge in eastern Cambodia for years without congressional approval. By the time Congress put an end to the bombings in 1973, more than 230,000 sorties over the country had dropped some 2.75 million tons of ordnance on more than 113,000 sites, many of them inaccurate. Casualty estimates of that time range from 5,000 Cambo­dians to half a million, while bombs that failed to explode on impact continue to kill unwitting farmers and children today.

Some historians have also credited the U.S. bombing for driving large numbers of rural Cambo­dians into the arms of then-insurgent Khmer Rouge, whose brutal regime went on to claim another 1.7 million lives.

Council of Ministers spokes­man Phay Siphan main­tained the government’s position that the U.S. bombing of Cambo­dia was illegal.

“If you kill someone in another country, it’s illegal, unless you have their [the country’s] permission, that’s my opinion,” said Mr. Siphan.

But the U.S. military’s overwhelming force left Cambodia helpless to do anything about it, he added.

“They could do anything they like, legal or illegal; it is their interest,” Mr. Siphan said. “We [had] no ability to keep North Vietnamese out from the country because we were weak.”

He regretted the Justice De­part­ment’s decision to use the experience in its defense of U.S. drone strikes.

“I feel sorry that they use that argument,” he said.

Historian and Cambodia expert David Chandler questioned the Justice Department’s choice of years in the U.S.’ yearslong bomb­ing campaign.

“Interesting that the 1970 bombing approved by [the late king and then-head of state Norodom] Si­hanouk, and therefore perhaps ‘legal,’ are cited now rather than the hugely destructive 1973 bombings ceased by Congress, which were directed not against Vietnamese but against the Khmer Rouge with whom the U.S. was not at war,” he said by email.

“The point about the 1973 bombings is that they were what a U.S. gen­eral called the only war in town, as bombings of Vietnam had stopped following the agreement be­tween the U.S. and Vietnam,” he said. “They were horrible and inexcusable, or excusable only in the sense that they postponed the [Khmer Rouge] victory by at least a year.”

The Khmer Rouge finally overran the U.S.-backed Lon Nol re­gime in 1975.

Historian Ben Kiernan and others have partly blamed U.S. bomb­ings for what followed.

“Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had en­joyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Viet­nam War deeper into Cambo­dia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide,” he wrote in a 2006 article for Toronto-based The Walrus magazine.

At his confirmation hearing for Sec­retary of State last month, John Kerry reconfirmed his opinion that the U.S.’ bombing of Cam­bodia was illegal.

Cambodia has also brought up the bombing in lobbying the U.S. to forgive $274 million in debt—since grown to $445 million with interest—wracked up by the Lon Nol regime, but yet to no avail.

Soon after NBC News released the white paper citing the bombing of Cambodia, the White House re­versed course by announcing that it would brief members of Con­gress on the classified memos.

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