Obama’s Kill Policy

Below is today’s column in Foreign Policy magazine on Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern University Law School. UPDATE: FBI Director declines to answer whether the new doctrine allows the killing of citizens in the United States.

On Monday, March 5, Northwestern University School of Law was the location of an extraordinary scene for a free nation. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder presented President Barack Obama’s claim that he has the authority to kill any U.S. citizen he considers a threat. It served as a retroactive justification for the slaying of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki last September by a drone strike in northeastern Yemen, as well as the targeted killings of at least two other Americans during Obama’s term.

What’s even more extraordinary is that this claim, which would be viewed by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution as the very definition of authoritarian power, was met not with outcry but muted applause. Where due process once resided, Holder offered only an assurance that the president would kill citizens with care. While that certainly relieved any concern that Obama would hunt citizens for sport, Holder offered no assurances on how this power would be used in the future beyond the now all-too-familiar “trust us” approach to civil liberties of this administration.

In his speech, Holder was clear and unambiguous on only one point: “The president may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war — even if that individual happens to be a U.S. citizen.” The use of the word “abroad” is interesting because senior administration officials have previously suggested that the president may kill an American anywhere and anytime, including within the United States. Holder’s speech does not materially limit that claimed authority, but stressed that “our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields in Afghanistan.” He might as well have stopped at “limited” because the administration has refused to accept any practical limitations on this claimed inherent power.

Holder became highly cryptic in his assurance that caution would be used in exercising this power — suggesting some limitation that is both indefinable and unreviewable. He promised that the administration would kill Americans only with “the consent of the nation involved or after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States.” He did not explain how the nation in question would consent or how a determination would be made that it is “unable or unwilling to deal” with the threat.

Of course, the citizens of the United States once consented on a relevant principle when they ratified the Constitution and later the Bill of Rights. They consented to a government of limited powers where citizens are entitled to the full protections of due process against allegations by their government. That is clearly not the type of consent that Holder wants to revisit or discuss. Indeed, he insisted that “a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to ‘due process.'”

Holder’s new definition of “due process” was perfectly Orwellian. While the Framers wanted an objective basis for due process, Holder was offering little more than “we will give the process that we consider due to a target.” And even the vaguely described “due process” claimed by Holder was not stated as required, but rather granted, by the president. Three citizens have been given their due during the Obama administration and vaporized by presidential order. Frankly, few of us mourn their passing. However, due process appears to have been vaporized in the same moment — something many U.S. citizens may come to miss.

What Holder is describing is a model of an imperial presidency that would have made Richard Nixon blush. If the president can kill a citizen, there are a host of other powers that fall short of killing that the president might claim, including indefinite detention of citizens — another recent controversy. Thus, by asserting the right to kill citizens without charge or judicial review, Holder has effectively made all of the Constitution’s individual protections of accused persons matters of presidential discretion. These rights will be faithfully observed up to the point that the president concludes that they interfere with his view of how best to protect the country — or his willingness to wait for “justice” to be done. And if Awlaki’s fate is any indication, there will be no opportunity for much objection.

Already, the administration has successfully blocked efforts of citizens to gain review of such national security powers or orders. Not only is the list of citizens targeted with death kept secret, but the administration has insisted that courts do not play a role in the creation of or basis for such a list. Even when Awlaki’s family tried to challenge Obama’s kill order, the federal court declared that the cleric would have to file for himself — a difficult task when you are on a presidential hit list. Moreover, any attorney working with Awlaki would have risked being charged with aiding a terrorist.

When the applause died down after Holder’s speech, we were left with a bizarre notion of government. We have this elaborate system of courts and rights governing the prosecution and punishment of citizens. However, that entire system can be circumvented at the whim or will of the president. The president then becomes effectively the lawgiver or lifetaker for all citizens. The rest becomes a mere pretense of the rule of law.

Holder was describing the very model of government the Framers denounced in crafting both the Constitution and Bill of Rights. James Madison in particular warned that citizens should not rely on the good graces and good intentions of their leaders. He noted, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” The administration appears to have taken the quote literally as an invitation for unlimited authority for angels.

Of course, even those who hold an angelic view of Obama today may come to find the next president less divine. In the end, those guardian angels will continue to claim to be acting in the best interests of every citizen — with the exception, of course, of those citizens killed by them.

Jonathan Turley

Foreign Policy Magazine, March 6, 2012

140 thoughts on “Obama’s Kill Policy

  1. Hey… the police kill American citizens all the time. The police are government agents sent out by Obama to execute every United States citizen one by one. The next time those flashing lights come on behind you, say your prayers and be ready to die!

  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/opinion/too-much-power-for-a-president.html?_r=1&hp


    Too Much Power for a President
    Published: May 30, 2012

    “It has been clear for years that the Obama administration believes the shadow war on terrorism gives it the power to choose targets for assassination, including Americans, without any oversight. On Tuesday, The New York Times revealed who was actually making the final decision on the biggest killings and drone strikes: President Obama himself. And that is very troubling.

    Mr. Obama has demonstrated that he can be thoughtful and farsighted, but, like all occupants of the Oval Office, he is a politician, subject to the pressures of re-election. No one in that position should be able to unilaterally order the killing of American citizens or foreigners located far from a battlefield — depriving Americans of their due-process rights — without the consent of someone outside his political inner circle.

    How can the world know whether the targets chosen by this president or his successors are truly dangerous terrorists and not just people with the wrong associations? (It is clear, for instance, that many of those rounded up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks weren’t terrorists.) How can the world know whether this president or a successor truly pursued all methods short of assassination, or instead — to avoid a political charge of weakness — built up a tough-sounding list of kills?

    It is too easy to say that this is a natural power of a commander in chief. The United States cannot be in a perpetual war on terror that allows lethal force against anyone, anywhere, for any perceived threat. That power is too great, and too easily abused, as those who lived through the George W. Bush administration will remember.

    Mr. Obama, who campaigned against some of those abuses in 2008, should remember. But the Times article, written by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, depicts him as personally choosing every target, approving every major drone strike in Yemen and Somalia and the riskiest ones in Pakistan, assisted only by his own aides and a group of national security operatives. Mr. Obama relies primarily on his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.

    To his credit, Mr. Obama believes he should take moral responsibility for these decisions, and he has read the just-war theories of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

    The Times article points out, however, that the Defense Department is currently killing suspects in Yemen without knowing their names, using criteria that have never been made public. The administration is counting all military-age males killed by drone fire as combatants without knowing that for certain, assuming they are up to no good if they are in the area. That has allowed Mr. Brennan to claim an extraordinarily low civilian death rate that smells more of expediency than morality.

    In a recent speech, Mr. Brennan said the administration chooses only those who pose a real threat, not simply because they are members of Al Qaeda, and prefers to capture suspects alive. Those assurances are hardly binding, and even under Mr. Obama, scores of suspects have been killed but only one taken into American custody. The precedents now being set will be carried on by successors who may have far lower standards. Without written guidelines, they can be freely reinterpreted.

    A unilateral campaign of death is untenable. To provide real assurance, President Obama should publish clear guidelines for targeting to be carried out by nonpoliticians, making assassination truly a last resort, and allow an outside court to review the evidence before placing Americans on a kill list. And it should release the legal briefs upon which the targeted killing was based.”

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