Goodness me, that President Bush is evil. How could he possibly assert that he has the exclusive power to … oh … it’s President Obama? No way!
A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” — even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.
The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.
They also killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son for reasons that remain nebulous. Greenwald:
What has made these actions all the more radical is the absolute secrecy with which Obama has draped all of this. Not only is the entire process carried out solely within the Executive branch – with no checks or oversight of any kind – but there is zero transparency and zero accountability. The president’s underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president – at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as “Terror Tuesday” – then chooses from “baseball cards” and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.
There are many problems with this outline (which is a reduced version of a much longer and still classified policy). The determination that someone is a “senior” Al-Quaeda leader and poses a threat is made entirely by the White House in total secrecy. We’re currently having an argument in the S&P thread about Obama using the power of the justice department to get his enemies. Do we trust them with this power?
Second, the statement that this applies only to senior terrorist leaders who pose an imminent threat is garbage. Once you look past the Orwellian language, the memo eviscerates those headline requirements, noting that there is no minimum requirement. They don’t have to be a senior member. They don’t have to pose an imminent threat. Awlaki’s son was neither. The White House just has to decide that … well … this person needs killing.
In other words, this is not a memo that narrowly defines the President’s power to unilaterally kill those that he considers threats. It massively expands it. It declares it to be essentially without bounds. He can order the killing of anyone anywhere in the world for reasons that can remain secret indefinitely.
Now maybe this sound fine to a lot of people. But Sullum reminds us of something critical:
The problem is that to accept this position, you have to put complete trust in the competence, wisdom, and ethics of the president, his underlings, and their successors. You have to believe they are properly defining and inerrantly identifying people who pose an imminent (or quasi-imminent) threat to national security and eliminating that threat through the only feasible means, which involves blowing people up from a distance. If mere mortals deserved that kind of faith, we would not need a Fifth Amendment, or the rest of the Constitution.
Exactly. If we trust the government with the unaccountable power of life and death, why shouldn’t we trust it with the power to decide what speech is acceptable? Why not dispense with the commerce clause and trust it to only regulate commerce when necessary? Why not save money on all those jury trials and just trust that anyone they arrest is guilty of something? Actually, given the explosion of laws, we probably all are guilty of something.
We spend a lot of time on this blog attacking Obama’s policies and competence. We accuse him of using the Justice Department to attack his enemies and advance his agenda. But we trust him to only kill the bad people?
(Ironically, as all this is going on, we’re delivering F-16’s and M-1 tanks to Egypt. So while the President is assuming unlimited authority to kill Americans over possible dangers, we’re giving weapons to a national leadership that poses a much more serious and real danger. The Egyptians have promised to be nice. I think.)
No President should have this power. Not Ronald Reagan. Not George Washington. Not Abraham Lincoln. Not Franklin Roosevelt. And certainly not Barack Obama. I can concede, perhaps, that in the global terrorism theater, it’s necessary to use drones for targeted killing. I can even accept, perhaps, that an American might be the recipient of this. What I can not accept is that this designation happens in complete secrecy with no accountability whatsoever. That we have to trust that our government won’t mix up a name (as they do with the no fly list), get bad intelligence (as the did with Iraq) or just got it completely fucking wrong (as they did with Maher Arar). Or that they won’t abuse that power to kill someone who really isn’t a threat but is, in some way, inconvenient to them.
I don’t trust government. That’s one of the roots of my fundamental conservatism. If I’m not going to trust government to run my healthcare, why on Earth would I trust them with the power to secretly and unaccountably kill my fellow citizens?
Update: Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the few liberal Obama supporters who gets it:
I don’t want to be thick-witted here. I understand that on some level a democracy generally elects human leaders who will not abuse the spirit of the law. I think Barack Obama is such a leader. That is for the historians to determine. But practically, much of our foreign policy now depends on the hope of benevolent dictators and philosopher kings. The law can’t help. The law is what the kings say it is.
Lee described the Bush Administration as using “star chamber justice”. Bush had nothing on these guys.