This sounds harsh, but it’s simply the way it is. Two months ago, we blogged about the secret hit list program, enacted by President Bush in the days after 9/11 and continued by President Obama, that gives the American president the “authority” to kill American citizens abroad if they are suspected of involvement in carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States. Then, radical Muslim cleric Anwar Aulaqi, U.S. citizen and Yemen resident, suspected of involvement in the Fort Hood shootings and the Detroit underpants bomber incident, was considered to be one of the targets. Now he’s been officially approved for elimination.
Of course, you might think that terrorists are mindless people bent on killing others as much as they can themselves, and that their elimination as war combatants is simply the normal thing to do. But you have to realize that first of all, whether strong evidence against them exists or not, they are still suspects. They have not been brought to court, been given a trial, and through due process been convicted of criminal activities. They are suspected of terrorist activity. Second, these are American citizens. That means they are an inherent part of the American polity; they have political, economical and social rights. They are entitled to the protection of the state against violence, and if they commit crimes, to be prosecuted and convicted by the state within the boundaries of the rule of law. That is what the state is for. They are not to be subjects of targeted killing, of the most fundamental form of violence imaginable: death, brought on to them by an almost omnipresent entity, without any protection against this whatsoever.
Barack Obama, however, thinks otherwise.
This is the president of hope and change. And he goes further than George Bush and Dick Cheney ever went.
The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.
Mr. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and spent years in the United States as an imam, is in hiding in Yemen. He has been the focus of intense scrutiny since he was linked to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, and then to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25.
American counterterrorism officials say Mr. Awlaki is an operative of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terror network in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. They say they believe that he has become a recruiter for the terrorist network, feeding prospects into plots aimed at the United States and at Americans abroad, the officials said.
It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said. A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.
The possibility that Mr. Awlaki might be added to the target list was reported by The Los Angeles Times in January, and Reuters reported on Tuesday that he was approved for capture or killing.
“The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,” said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity. “He’s gotten involved in plots.”
The official added: “The United States works, exactly as the American people expect, to overcome threats to their security, and this individual — through his own actions — has become one. Awlaki knows what he’s done, and he knows he won’t be met with handshakes and flowers. None of this should surprise anyone.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think terrorists are very evil and I actually think Obama is the best president, both in terms of governing and personally, since, I don’t know, Johnson or FDR. But people have to realize what these moves represent. They represent a shift from a situation in which the rule of law reigns, in which individuals are protected by rights against the powers of the state, to a situation of lawlessness, to an executive power that deems it within its discretion to target and kill anyone (yes, anyone on the planet) who they deem a threat. And Obama is presiding over this shift.
It’s worth citing Greenwald once more.
Just think about this for a minute. Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.” They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations. Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years. That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?
Even if you’re someone who does want the President to have the power to order American citizens killed without a trial by decreeing that they are Terrorists (and it’s worth remembering that if you advocate that power, it’s going to be vested in all Presidents, not just the ones who are as Nice, Good, Kind-Hearted and Trustworthy as Barack Obama), shouldn’t there at least be some judicial approval required? Do we really want the President to be able to make this decision unilaterally and without outside checks? Remember when many Democrats were horrified (or at least when they purported to be) at the idea that Bush was merely eavesdropping on American citizens without judicial approval? Shouldn’t we be at least as concerned about the President’s being able to assassinate Americans without judicial oversight?
And Greenwald’s recent post on this matter should make any Obama supporter think. Just compare his statements as a candidate with his extreme actions today.
When Obama was seeking the Democratic nomination, the Constitutional Law Scholar answered a questionnaire about executive power distributed by The Boston Globe‘s Charlie Savage, and this was one of his answers:
5. Does the Constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants?
[Obama]: No. I reject the Bush Administration’s claim that the President has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.
So back then, Obama said the President lacks the power merely to detain U.S. citizens without charges. Now, as President, he claims the power to assassinate them without charges. Could even his hardest-core loyalists try to reconcile that with a straight face? As Spencer Ackerman documents today, not even John Yoo claimed that the President possessed the power Obama is claiming here.