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Assassination nation: Are there any limits on President Obama's license to kill?

As part of its war against violent extremism, the Obama administration now claims a right to kill Americans without a trial, without notice, and without any chance for targets to legally object.

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Evidently, as long as the president or his spokesmen claim benevolent motives, any killings they authorize are legally sacrosanct.

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Congress has done nothing to examine this new presidential prerogative. Instead, many members of Congress favor codifying this power.

On May 11, the House Armed Services Committee passed a defense reauthorization bill that included a vague provision entitling the president to attack “Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces.” But the executive branch can define “associated forces” any way it pleases. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) complained that “declaring a global war against nameless individuals, organizations, and nations ‘associated’ with the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as those playing a supporting role in their efforts ... would appear to grant the President near unfettered authority to initiate military action around the world without further congressional approval.” Dozens of members co-signed Conyers’s complaint.

The Obama administration acts as if the executive branch deserves “unreviewable authority to target and kill any US citizen it deems a suspect of terrorism anywhere,” according to Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Pardiss Kebriae. But the feds have a horrible batting average on accurately identifying terrorist suspects. In the six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the US government rounded up 1,200 people as suspected terrorists or terrorist supporters. None of the detainees proved to have links to the 9/11 attacks. Federal judges have rejected the government’s case against most of the Guantanamo detainees who succeeded in getting a hearing in court.

Scary precedents

Some Americans may think the president’s license to kill is simply a temporary tactic for the war on terror. But precedents being established today will be invoked by future commanders-in-chief who may have a much broader “enemies lists” or who have no qualms about expanding the action from the Arab Street to Main Street. As long as government spokesmen label the victims as terrorist suspects, many Americans might cheer “pro-freedom” assassinations no matter where they occur.

Killings based solely on presidential commands radically transform the relation of the government to the citizenry. Americans cannot expect to have good presidents if presidents are permitted to act like czars.

James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy” and “Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty.”

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