How much evidence should the US government be obliged to show before it kills an American citizen?
None, according to the Obama administration.
And how much evidence should the government be obliged to possess of an American’s wrongdoing before officially targeting them for killing?
That’s a secret, according to the Obama team.
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. On May 6, the US government launched a drone attack to try to kill a US citizen in Yemen. The Obama administration alleges that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American born Muslim cleric, helped spark killings at Fort Hood, Texas, and an attempt to blow up a jetliner in 2009. Mr. Awlaki might be a four-star bad guy, but government press releases and background briefings have not previously been sufficient to justify capital punishment. The drone attack failed to terminate Awlaki, though two other people were killed.
The US government has admitted that it has added the names of other Americans to a list for targeted killing. The American Civil Liberties Union sued last year to compel the government “to disclose the legal standard it uses to place US citizens on government kill lists,” but was thwarted when the Obama administration claimed the entire program was a “state secret.” Last December, federal Judge John Bates dismissed the ACLU’s lawsuit because “there are circumstances in which the Executive’s unilateral decision to kill a US citizen overseas” is “judicially unreviewable.”
Presidential power grabs
Unfortunately, the current assassination program is merely an extension of presidential power grabs going back into the last century. In 1998, President Clinton launched a missile strike against a Sudan pill producer after US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. After the US government failed to offer any evidence linking its target in Sudan to the terrorist attacks, the owners of Sudan’s largest pharmaceutical factory sued for compensation for damage. In 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decreed: “President Clinton, in his capacity as commander in chief, fired missiles at a target of his choosing to pursue a military objective he had determined was in the national interest. Under the Constitution, this decision is immune from judicial review.”
Evidently, as long as the president or his spokesmen claim benevolent motives, any killings they authorize are legally sacrosanct.
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.
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.”