Below is today’s column in USA Today (to run in paper form on Wednesday) on President Barack Obama’s claim to the right to kill citizens as dangers to the nation. Ironically, the day after I wrote the Los Angeles Times column on Obama’s disastrous impact on the civil liberties movement in the United States (including his assertion of the right to kill citizens on his own authority), the U.S. killed two citizens in Yemen. Notably, Ron Paul (who has emerged as the only candidate discussing these issues from a civil libertarian perspective) suggested an impeachment inquiry based on the killing of the two citizens. Below is the column in USA Today.
Last week, Americans saw a curious sight for a free nation: their president ordered the killing of two U.S. citizens without a trial or even a formal charge and the public applauded. President Obama never denied that he told the military to kill Anwar al-Awlaki on his sole discretion a year ago. They did so last week in Yemen – and killed U.S.-born cleric Samir Khan for good measure. Two U.S. citizens killed because a president unilaterally declared them to be part of a terrorist organization.
Before the killing, Obama successfully fought efforts by al-Awlaki’s family to have a court review the legality for the planned assassination of their kin. Due to reported prior associations of the U.S. government with al-Awlaki, it was a hearing that the intelligence agencies likely did not want to occur. At the time, the Justice Department argued that if al-Awlaki wanted judicial review, he should file with the clerk’s office himself – despite an order for him to be shot on sight. The Obama administration succeeded in arguing that the planned killing of a citizen on this hit list was a “political question,” not a legal question.
While few people mourn the passing of a figure like al-Awlaki who was accused being a leader in al Qaeda, they should mourn the passing of basic constitutional protections afforded to all citizens. So a president can now kill a citizen without publicly naming him as a target, stating the basis for his killing, or even acknowledge his killing once it has been carried out. Even if one assumes citizens would only be killed outside the country, it would mean that a your life becomes dispensable the minute you step a foot over one of our borders.
At the same time, the government has expanded the definition of terrorism and material support for terrorism, which in turn further expands the scope of possible targets. When confronted on the lack of knowledge of who is on this list and the basis for their killing, the Obama administration simply says that citizens must trust their president. It is the very definition of authoritarian power – and Americans appear to have developed a taste for it.
Obama’s hit list is a continuation of a policy defended by George W. Bush, who ordered an attack that killed U.S. citizen, Kamal Derwish, in Yemen in 2002. While Bush wanted Yemeni Abu Ali al-Harithi (the alleged mastermind behind the 2000 bombing of the U.S. Cole) dead, Derwish was riding in the car with him (as well as four other individuals). Derwish was not even on a hit list, but U.S. intelligence officials said it did not matter because they were authorized to kill Americans in such operations.
The sight of free people applauding the president’s discretionary killing of citizens would have horrified the framers of our Constitution. In conflict with a system based on checks and balances, Obama controls not just who will die but whether a court can review his decisions. Even if the family of these men were to try to sue for wrongful death, the Obama administration insists that they have the discretion to block such cases under the “military and state secrets privilege.” Thus, even if a president arbitrarily were to order the killing of a citizen, neither the victim nor his family could challenge the matter before an independent court (assuming they even knew about the order).
Notably, in the face of this extrajudicial killing of two citizens, Democrats who claim to be civil libertarians like Dianne Feinstein have cheered the president – creating a record for the next president to expand on these acquiesced powers.
No republic can long stand if a president retains the unilateral authority to kill citizens who he deems a danger to the country. What is left is a magnificent edifice of laws and values that, to quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.