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A License to Kill

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!

Yes 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.

30 comments

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  1. Aussiesmurf says:

    Disgusting. One thing that both previous administrations have promoted assiduously is the unilateral power of the executive, which is hardly a surprise.

    The rule of law is the golden thread which separates a functioning democracy from a dictatorship. Every elected official (and particularly elected officials) should be subject to the law and due process.

    I strongly recommend the books of Geoffrey Robertson QC, a English / Australian barrister who has written extensively about the need for governments to be accountable in a Court-room, and the dangers of unaccountable decision-making, such as the type listed here.

    People in any position always consider themselves to be able to be trusted with power, because they are the ‘good guys’, Of course, its over-looked that EVERYONE thinks that their intentions are good and noble, and that they can be trusted with power. The power of life and death should never be granted so carelessly.

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  2. Mississippi Yankee says:

    Progressives do not believe in the rule of law. They want what the rule of what-seems-right-at-the-moment. Makes sense when you consider the influence of John Dewey on academia for the last hundred years:

    Dewey’s philosophy was called instrumental-ism (related to pragmatism).
    Instrumental-ism believes that truth is an instrument used by human beings to solve their problems.
    Since problems change, then so must truth.
    Since problems change, truth changes, and therefore there can be no eternal reality.

    I’m not sure whose words these are but the reasoning behind them is same as mine.

    Not long ago I felt myself slowly leaning towards anarchy… turns out I was wrong, just not about the anarchy part…

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  3. ilovecress says:

    To be fair, I’ve heard the left having a shitfit over this. Who is actually defending it? (Honest question, I can’t think what that argument would even be)

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  4. TxAg94 says:

    A question I have is do the Oba-maniacs think they will be in power forever or are they okay with their successor having this same unchecked authority to kill? What if that successor is not a liberal? I suspect the only way to get any restraints on this power, any real discussion of it, is to elect a non-liberal to office. Then it will be a HUGE controversy, as it should be now.

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  5. Dave D says:

    TxAg: It’s not even a non-liberal that would garnish complaints. The simple fact that a Republican is in office makes it bad. If a democrat does it, well “he must have had a reason” and is morally excused. Good point on the transference of power, but again, remember, that these clowns are trying to set up a permanent majority of teat-suckers that vote democrat ad-infinatum.

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  6. ilovecress says:

    A question I have is do the Oba-maniacs think they will be in power forever or are they okay with their successor having this same unchecked authority to kill?

    It’s not even a non-liberal that would garnish complaints. The simple fact that a Republican is in office makes it bad. If a democrat does it, well “he must have had a reason” and is morally excused.

    It’s an argument that I and other pinkos were making all the way through the Bush presidency. In fact it was a pretty big argument on this very blog (with regards to torture, rendition, indefinite detention and ‘enemy combatant’), which led to a lot of people splitting off, because they thought Lee and the others weren’t conservative enough. Those that were left (and to be fair it’s pretty much everyone who’s still here – SO, Hal etc) were labeled BDS sufferers.

    (some fun from the archives)

    Lee:

    The administration creates a series of secret torture prisons that are outside the scope of law. Why? Because of a sense of divine right. I don’t think Bush is doing it because he believes he is ordained from God to do so (though that certainly plays a part), I believe that he thinks that the president should be accountable to nobody. This is the modern variant of the Divine Right of Kings, that the executive (be it king or prime minister or president or chairman or whomever) is free to do as he choses, and may break the law as they see fit without fear of accountability.
    Don’t like the law? just ignore it. And wait until you hear the howls of indignation coming from the Bushbots™ when president Hillary is doing exactly the same thing. Of course THEN they’ll be annoyed at this clear violation of the Constitution, cuz she’s one-a them Demmycrats.

    Yahonza’s reply:

    Well you are getting pretty indignant, but surely your hatred of Bush is literally blinding you now.

    In a post where Lee calls out Drumwaster for forgiving Bushes constitutional ‘indiscretions’:

    Padders
    Expect them to rapidly change their tune when Clinton get’s in and does whatever the she wants.
    The squeals from the right will be amusing.

    (To be fair it’s not just liberals – lots of regulars here state the same. Hat Tip S-O)

    Lee on the Espionage Bill

    And, as usual, most people aren’t bothered by this in the slightest. It’s a good thing that we have in office an administration of the highest integrity, who would never abuse power such as this. And I’m also pleased that, for the rest of eternity, there will never be a presidential administration who would abuse this power.

    A Great discussion in the comments between Fangbeer and Dwex about how much of a problem lack of oversight is. FYI Dwex is pretty liberal.

    I’d LOVE to see more about this from the left. Or rather, I’d love to hear more than tut tutting and hand wringing – but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Progressives are silent.

    The only thing I can really find (and seriously, I’d love to hear how any progressive is twisting this) is

    Kevin Drum for Mother Jones who says:
    The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve come to agree with this position: If we’re at war, and if targeted killings of enemy combatants are legal, then U.S. citizenship is irrelevant. If you’ve joined up with enemy forces, you’re fair game. Conversely, if the justification in the memo is inadequate, that means the justification for targeted killings in general is inadequate. Either the entire program is justified, or none of it is.
    But….even if this makes sense, I’m not sure it feels right. Comments?

    ps – uncovered this post from 2007, asking for election predictions…

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  7. stogy says:

    I’d LOVE to see more about this from the left. Or rather, I’d love to hear more than tut tutting and hand wringing – but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Progressives are silent.

    Some really good points here, and I loved reading back through the archives. I didn’t think we were still able to access comments from the golden age? Lee saw it right at the time and the message still holds now.

    And what happened to Dwex anyway?

    And I think progressives could say more against this utterly reprehensible and self-defeating policy. It doesn’t matter who’s in office.

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  8. balthazar says:

    The only thing I can really find (and seriously, I’d love to hear how any progressive is twisting this) is

    Yet you have yet to provide anything backing up the “fact” that progressives are saying killing americans is wrong, nor have you addressed the fast that there is no definition of “imminent danger” being provided.

    I have a feeling Ruby Ridge would have been defined as “imminent danger” as would Waco.

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  9. Mook says:

    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 /\ /\. Those on the left who screamed that Bush was a “war criminal” are silent when Obama gives direct orders to assassinate US citizens without due process. You have to really dig to find any leftists willing to speak a word in criticism of our Nobel Prize Assassin-in-Chief for ordering kills on Americans. And in the rare instances where you can find one or two willing to criticize Obama, it’s with .0001% of the venom and intensity that they used to slam Bush for doing far less (waterboarding foreign terrorists under Bush vs. assassinating US citizens under Obama). This is Exhibit A on how the majority of leftists are dishonest to the core.

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  10. AlexInCT says:

    Yet you have yet to provide anything backing up the “fact” that progressives are saying killing americans is wrong, nor have you addressed the fast that there is no definition of “imminent danger” being provided.

    HOW DARE YOU!

    So many progressives have said that they think it is not a good thing to indiscriminately kill people, especially citizens, in this manner and that if it was being done by anyone but their guy, it would not only be evil, but an outright war crime! Obama however is above reproach, and hence, because he does it, they will not stage all the faux protests and demand he be tried for war crimes. And before you ask why they believe he is above reproach, remember that he has a Nobel peace prize you fucking peasant!

    /sarc

    Seriously, I actually think the drone program is a good thing, but the way this administration has gone about it, all the secret lists and the whole “enemy of the state gives us a free pass” thing, is worthy of a war crime tribunal if not an impeachment. Of course, because he is a leftist Obama will be defended and the left will keep pretending he is above reproach. If it was not for a double standard progressives would have none.

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  11. stogy says:

    is worthy of a war crime tribunal

    But but but…. that would mean…. international law!? Alex, you can’t be serious?? Can you? Isn’t the principle of trying any US citizen for breach of international law against everything you stand for… er …. against… er …. Obama… ….Something…

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  12. AlexInCT says:

    But but but…. that would mean…. international law!? Alex, you can’t be serious?? Can you?

    I only mentioned that because the left is enamored with that stuff. Personally I wouldn’t bother with that international law shit.

    Isn’t the principle of trying any US citizen for breach of international law against everything you stand for… er …. against… er …. Obama… ….Something…

    I could make a joke about Obama not being a US citizen, but you wouldn’t get that I am joking and think I believe that. What i do know is that he hates America the great and would prefer it be remolded in his image of something foreign, though.

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  13. ilovecress says:

    nor have you addressed the fast that there is no definition of “imminent danger” being provided.

    Wow. You’re right. It’s almost as if I agree that this is wrong, and that Obama is overreaching in executive power. You’re so keen to score points for ‘your side’ that you’re assuming my position.

    Yet you have yet to provide anything backing up the “fact” that progressives are saying killing Americans is wrong

    Firstly, why put “fact” in quotes? It wasn’t something that I said. So you’re bagging on me for not backing up a fact that I didn’t present. But I guess it’s fun to argue with the other side, huh? I said that I’d love to hear the left get more vocal over this.

    Having said that – there is a Greenwald piece quoted in the original post, and the first post was from AussieSmurf. If you twitter search NDAA, you get news about protests from Citizen Radio, and Michael Moore as the top two. There was a New York ‘faux protest’ (as Alex calls it) today, and Cenk Uygur calls Obama out here. Noam Fricking Chomsky has filed a lawsuit.

    For once it seems we all agree – this is a disgusting overreach.

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  14. CM says:

    And Sullivan

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  15. Mook says:

    And Sullivan

    Sullivan has known for years that Obama ordered secretive drone attacks, and he knew that civilians have died as a result.. and he also knew well before the election that Obama had ordered at least one drone strike which assassinated an American citizen without due process.. Yet he still viciously defended Obama well after that and through the election.

    Sullivan demands more transparency on the drone attacks and criticizes Obama now, but he didn’t oppose him WHEN IT MATTERED. Everything he says now on that subject is pure bullshit and phony posturing

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  16. pfluffy says:

    When it mattered? It mattered over a decade ago. I screamed bloody murder all over this site about the “slippery slope” and was ridiculed for my trouble. Why do you think everyone hates me? This is what Republicans asked for (I realize that not all of you are R’s). They wanted the ability to blow away terrorists at will. Some of them bitched about the “cushy” treatment that John Walker Lindh got in the courts. Very few conservatives at the time wanted so-called “terrorists” to receive due process. This was especially true if it happened overseas. No one gave a shit. GITMO is still a national disgrace. Why is it so important now? Why the mushy feelings for “alleged” terrorists and their “rights” now?

    The drone program sucks. Get used to it. No commander in chief is going to give up the tools that are available to fight terrorism. NOT A SINGLE ONE. We the People demanded a hard line on terrorists and we got it. Many words were twisted and mangled to make it legal.

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  17. Mississippi Yankee says:

    That was then:

    I screamed bloody murder all over this site about the “slippery slope” and was ridiculed for my trouble. Why do you think everyone hates me? This is what Republicans asked for (I realize that not all of you are R’s). They wanted the ability to blow away terrorists at will.

    This is now:

    We the People demanded a hard line on terrorists and we got it.

    What changed your fickle mind? Surely you haven’t put an (R) by your name.

    Many words were twisted and mangled to make it legal.

    The purpose of this post (outside of Hal’s attempt to maintain conservative creds) is to demonstrate that even with “twisted and mangled ” words it’s STILL is not legal …or moral to kill American citizens without due process.

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  18. pfluffy says:

    Nothing. I said it sucked back then. It still sucks now. It will always suck. I just gave up saying much given the flack I got here and elsewhere.

    When I said “We the People” I meant it as the US as a nation. Not me personally.

    The purpose of this post (outside of Hal’s attempt to maintain conservative creds) is to demonstrate that even with “twisted and mangled ” words it’s STILL is not legal …or moral to kill American citizens without due process.

    It isn’t moral or legal to kill or detain anyone without due process. I said it then and still say it. My purpose in this thread is to point out that this was the logical conclusion of a decade of rhetoric aimed at alleged terrorists. We are reaping what we have sown. It was naïve to think that it wouldn’t evolve into picking off terrorists like game.

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  19. Mississippi Yankee says:

    It was naïve to think that it wouldn’t evolve into picking off terrorists like game.

    And apparently still are for ignoring the “American” component. THAT is what makes the post unique.
    John Walker Lindh got in the courts. Yanno, due process?

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  20. pfluffy says:

    I have never “ignored” the American side of it at all. Just because you can pick apart the situation and find differences (they are ALL unique in some way) doesn’t make it different. The people shot up overseas by drones are people, many of whom are just going about their daily lives. I am not sure why the presence of an American makes it different.

    Hell, at one time some conservatives were calling for drones at the border! What could possibly go wrong? It’s just for dirty illegals, right? How long before the “border” becomes wider and wider on the US side? Hopefully, most of that stupidity will stop.

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  21. stogy says:

    The people shot up overseas by drones are people, many of whom are just going about their daily lives.

    Quite a few cases of family weddings targeted by drones as I recall. Not deliberately of course. But all it took was a rival warlord or local leader to go running to the Americans and say “the terrorists are in that fancy building over there” and whump! All dead. Not much chance for legal recourse there really. The US basically introduced a new resource into local domestic and dynastic power politics, and few on our side had any real ideas about the implications or outcomes.

    And all we did was end up with an “enemy factory”. And the occasional dead terrorist.

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  22. stogy says:

    I could make a joke about Obama not being a US citizen, but you wouldn’t get that I am joking and think I believe that. What i do know is that he hates America the great and would prefer it be remolded in his image of something foreign, though.

    I also know that the “fake” flag pin he wears contains secret illuminati symbols. I know because I had photos of it analyzed. The analysts didn’t find anything so I did it myself properly and that’s when I knew.

    The lizard people are coming. The lizard people are coming!

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  23. Mississippi Yankee says:

    The US basically introduced a new resource into local domestic and dynastic power politics, and few on our side had any real ideas about the implications or outcomes.

    stogy, It would seem to a true environmentalist such as your self that these acts might further the whole Zero population growth idea.
    Oh wait… these are ‘brown people’. Never mind.

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  24. Section8 says:

    Hell, at one time some conservatives were calling for drones at the border! What could possibly go wrong? It’s just for dirty illegals, right? How long before the “border” becomes wider and wider on the US side? Hopefully, most of that stupidity will stop.

    So you are worried about those racist right wingers calling for it. How about the guy you voted for actually doing it!? That’s right, your racist president chasing down those “dirty illegals” using drones, and since you don’t seem to care that makes you racist too. Or maybe you were just ignorant of it but decided to go ahead anyhow and use this opportunity to show how “intelligent” you are by injecting race into the mix and elevating yourself above it all. Textbook procedure for any leftist in a conversation. Just FYI, it’s not new or clever anymore. But it is funny when you want to ignore the whole story. Since you voted for this guy I’m guessing the stupidity won’t stop our “non racists” friends on the left either, but hey, if you cry “racist” first you win. It’s kinda like the game of yelling jinks for “intellectual adults”.

    The drone program sucks. Get used to it. No commander in chief is going to give up the tools that are available to fight terrorism. NOT A SINGLE ONE.

    LOL, I thought one of the main drivers behind electing Obama was to stop the right wing madness, not expand it. Well I guess that was all just leftist based bullshit wasn’t it? Thanks for letting us know

    now

    .

    The US basically introduced a new resource into local domestic and dynastic power politics, and few on our side had any real ideas about the implications or outcomes.

    Yep we can’t fight a perfect battle. Actually the terrorists introduced us into a war. Perhaps convince them to start to redirect their attacks in other countries that will handle the situation more to your liking. We weren’t bombing wedding parties on Sept 10th.

    My view on drones. It’s not the drones, it’s what is being done and to whom. I’d feel no better if it was an F-18 bombing some Americans anymore than a remote controlled aircraft.

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  25. balthazar says:

    irstly, why put “fact” in quotes? It wasn’t something that I said. So you’re bagging on me for not backing up a fact that I didn’t present. But I guess it’s fun to argue with the other side, huh? I said that I’d love to hear the left get more vocal over this.

    To be fair, I’ve heard the left having a shitfit over this. Who is actually defending it? (Honest question, I can’t think what that argument would even be)

    Oh fuck, caught again. GFY asshole.

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  26. CM says:

    Sullivan demands more transparency on the drone attacks and criticizes Obama now, but he didn’t oppose him WHEN IT MATTERED. Everything he says now on that subject is pure bullshit and phony posturing.

    June 2012:

    …this program needs to be very carefully monitored, excruciatingly reviewed, constantly questioned.

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  27. balthazar says:

    FYI, carefully monitoring etc is NOT opposing it, wow dude.

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  28. stogy says:

    stogy, It would seem to a true environmentalist such as your self that these acts might further the whole Zero population growth idea.

    Oh wait… these are ‘brown people’. Never mind.

    That doesn’t actually even make sense in terms of my original comment. At all. I express a concern about …ahem…”brown people”… getting killed because US forces are unwittingly being used to promote local power interests rather than kill actual terrorists, which is turning the local population against them and creating a nice recruiting ground for the …ahem… terrorists.

    You say, I should support this because it reduces the population saving the environment. And then you say it doesn’t matter to me because these are brown people.

    None of that makes any sense whatsoever. Even if it wasn’t a complete misrepresentation of any and every position I have ever held, both your own premises of your attack (if I could even call it that) are completely self-contradicting.

    Isn’t this supposed to be right-thinking?

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  29. Mississippi Yankee says:

    You say, I should support this because it reduces the population saving the environment. And then you say it doesn’t matter to me because these are brown people.

    And once again the left displays a complete lack of understanding for sarcasm, humor, hyperbole ect…

    I was poking you with a metaphorical stick. Glad to see I can still bait you.

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  30. stogy says:

    And once again the left displays a complete lack of understanding for sarcasm, humor, hyperbole ect…

    I was poking you with a metaphorical stick. Glad to see I can still bait you.

    Ah. I see. I got the tone first time. But I was confused because generally I expect humor (and in particular sarcasm) to involve actual cleverness in pointing out my various failings (of which there are many).

    Or at least outright pythonesque silliness. This was just a headscratcher. And I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

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