The administration defends its assassination program

A top Obama official offers justifications which are, at once, irrelevant and false

Topics: Terrorism, Washington, D.C.,

In the wake of Leon Panetta’s public defense of the targeting of American citizens suspected (but never charged or convicted) of Terrorism, Obama officials are now apparently going around the country and, with chest-beating rhetoric, overtly defending their right to target Americans for assassination with no due process of any kind:

“If someone like Anwar al-Awlaki is responsible” for part of a plot “to kill more than 300 people over the city of Detroit,” [director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael] Leiter said, “I think it would be wholly irresponsible for citizens like me, Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary (Robert) Gates, and ultimately the president, not to at least think about and potentially direct all the elements of national power to try to defend the American people” . . .

A woman in the crowd who identified herself as an American Civil Liberties Union member asked why there was no judicial review of such kill orders, citing the standard warrant requirements facing a policeman before entering a citizen’s home.

Leiter explained that while “a police officer does need a court order to go after a house,” the lawman “has a right of self-defense if someone pulls out a gun.”  The U.S. government, Leiter insisted, has the same right. He added that there is congressional oversight of such actions.



For several reasons, this is misleading in the extreme.  First, nobody disputes the military’s right (or the police’s) to use force if they seek to apprehend someone and that person begins shooting at them.  That situation has nothing whatsoever to do with the presidential assassination program, which authorizes targeted killings without any attempt at apprehension and no matter what the person is doing at the time:  i.e., sleeping, riding in a car, watching television with their children, etc. (indeed, the administration has already tried to kill Awlaki in exactly this fashion without trying to apprehend him).  If, as Leiter deceitfully suggests, this were only about the military or CIA’s use of force in the event that a suspect starts using violence during an attempted apprehension, then no presidential order would be needed because they already have that right, and there’d be no controversy.  That’s just obvious.  Instead, “[t]he Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing [] targeted killing” of Americans.  The police don’t have the right to put a bullet in the back of a suspect’s head while he sleeps or by sneaking up behind him while he walks on the street, which is the actual Police analogy to what the Obama administration is doing.

Second, Leiter’s claim “that there is congressional oversight of such actions” is both irrelevant and materially false.  It’s irrelevant because the President does not have the right to assassinate American citizens without due process just as long as he tells a few member of Congress what he’s doing (that was always the Bush excuse for its lawless behavior:  well, we told Congress what we were doing).  And it’s false because, as Time‘s Massimo Calabresi reports, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “in the middle of an ugly fight with the President — as well as the CIA . . . about Congress’s watchdog powers over the U.S. intelligence services.”  As Calabresi writes — using the term “center” to mean ”copying Bush/Cheney policies” — “the battle is turning into the biggest confrontation yet over Executive power between the liberal House Speaker and a White House that has moved steadily to the center on national security matters.” As Russ Feingold explained, “the Obama administration is continuing some of the stonewalling practices of the George W. Bush administration when it comes to providing full intelligence briefings to the relevant committees in Congress.”

Specifically, Pelosi is demanding — and the White House is vowing to veto — a new intelligence law to require “the CIA and other intelligence agencies to inform all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees when they launch any covert action or other controversial program” and to allow “the Government Accountability Office (GAO) [] to audit[] any intelligence program, . . . a power the GAO has for classified Pentagon programs but not for the intelligence agencies.”  That’s because the current process — which the White House is fighting desperately to maintain — provides no meaningful oversight of the “most sensitive” intelligence programs, which is how the Bush administration was able to claim it “briefed” members of Congress (including Pelosi) on its torture and eavesdropping programs while telling them very little that would enable meaningful review.  As Richard Clarke and so many others have explained, the intelligence “oversight” system in place now is a sham and (quoting Clarke) a “farce.”  The suggestion that someone whom the President targets for assassination is given anything resembling meaningful due process all because a few members of Congress are told by the CIA about it is so ludicrous as to be insulting.

Finally, note Leiter’s decree — for which no evidence has been offered and which has never been reviewed by any court — that Awlaki “had a ‘direct operational role’ in the plot that allegedly sent Christmas Day bombing suspect Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab to attack a Detroit-bound airliner packed with nearly 300 passengers.”  Could the individuals who trust the U.S. Government to essentially convict people of Terrorism and impose a death penalty through imperial decree (i.e., without any trials or judicial review, and based solely on the unchecked say-so of the Executive Branch) please identify themselves, and particularly explain the basis for that trust in light of this disgraceful and error-plagued record?  We really are talking about a President who believes he has the right to send the CIA to murder American citizens based purely on allegations and suspicions of wrongdoing; to describe the seized power is to illustrate its perversity.

* * * * *

As the first commenter notes, we also find here the central justification for most of what was done under the Bush administration:  anything and everything is justified if it can be cast as helping to “protect the American people,” as though Security is the overarching presidential duty.  In fact, the actual oath taken by the President as compelled by the Constitution — that irritating, purist, Far Leftist document which he incessantly told us he studied and taught — is this:  ”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  To fulfill that duty, he might want to begin by looking here:  ”No person shall . . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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