When liberals ignore injustice

Why isn't there more outrage on the left about the president's unilateral targeted assassination program?

Topics: Targeted killing, Drones, Drone Attacks, Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Anwar al-Awlaki,

When liberals ignore injustice (Credit: AP/Susan Walsh)

Last year Brown University’s Michael Tesler released a fascinating study showing that Americans inclined to racially blinkered views wound up opposing policies they would otherwise support, once they learned those policies were endorsed by President Obama. Their prejudice extended to the breed of the president’s dog, Bo: They were much more likely to say they liked Portuguese water dogs when told Ted Kennedy owned one than when they learned Obama did.

But Tesler found that the Obama effect worked the opposite way, too: African-Americans and white liberals who supported Obama became more likely to support policies once they learned the president did.

More than once I’ve worried that might carry over to bad policies Obama has flirted with embracing, that liberals have traditionally opposed: raising the age for Medicare and Social Security or cutting those programs’ benefits. Or hawkish national security policies that liberals shrieked about when carried out by President Bush, from rendition to warrantless spying. Or even worse, policies that Bush stopped short of, like targeted assassination of U.S. citizens loyal to al-Qaida (or “affiliates”) who were (broadly) deemed (likely) to threaten the U.S. with (possible) violence (someday).

Those ugly parentheses are made necessary by Michael Isikoff’s exclusive report on the Obama administration “white paper” that justifies its unprecedented claim to the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process on foreign soil. The New York Times and the ACLU had sued to get the administration to release the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion in the case of the targeted assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki by drone strike in Yemen last year. The administration fought that effort, but Isikoff was leaked a summary, “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It lays out a legal rationale far beyond anything the administration has claimed before.

Specifically, where Attorney General Eric Holder insisted such attacks would only be used to deter “imminent threat of violent attack,” similar to the rights police officers have to kill a suspect in a hostage situation or impending terror attack, the white paper clarifies what that means – or rather obfuscates – in chilling language:

The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.

So: The president doesn’t need “clear evidence” of a “specific attack” planned for “the immediate future.” How about little or no evidence of some vaguely debated attack at some point someday?

And while joining up with al-Qaida might be evidence that an American means his or her country grave harm, what about hooking up with “associated force”? The memo doesn’t define it. And it doesn’t restrict the power to make these judgments to the commander in chief, either; it’s enough that an “informed, high-level official” deem the suspect an “operational leader” who presents the danger of an unspecified “imminent threat” – someday.

As Glenn Greenwald notes, the paper itself makes clear it’s establishing a kind of ceiling, not a floor – it allows that targeted assassination may also be allowed under conditions not outlined in the paper. “This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful,” it states; rather, “it concludes only that the stated conditions would be sufficient to make lawful a lethal operation.” And it reflects a continuation of the Bush-Cheney doctrine of “global battlefield,” justifying such operations anywhere al-Qaida may be operating.

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Opponents of Obama’s targeted assassination program have tried to galvanize some public outrage by pointing not to the killing of the senior al-Awlaki, who went public many times with his fealty to al-Qaida and his desire to see the U.S. attacked, but of his 16-year-old son, Abduhrahman, who was killed in a separate targeted strike two weeks later. We don’t know anything about the evidence against the younger al-Awlaki, and liberals who care about the rights of the accused, especially the minor accused, should be expected to care maybe a little bit more about the 16-year-old. Except many don’t. Most famously, when former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs was confronted by a reporter who questioned “an American citizen that is being targeted without due process, without trial … And, he’s underage. He’s a minor,” he replied:

I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.

It’s hard to imagine Obama supporters defending the punishment of a 16-year-old because he “should have a more responsible father” – let alone capital punishment.

After the killing of Trayvon Martin, I got in ugly Twitter battles with tin-eared leftists who trashed Obama for defending Martin when he had presided over the killing of the younger al-Awlaki. They ignored the very real relief many African-Americans felt that the president spoke up for Martin with the poignant comment, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Today on Twitter, some Obama supporters are accusing the president’s critics – without evidence — of caring more about al-Awlaki than Trayvon Martin. Ugh. It’s even been suggested that raising questions about the president’s targeted assassination policy is a form of “white privilege.” Goldie Taylor, someone I respect, clarified her tweet to say that “selective outrage” over the Isikoff story reflects “white privilege.” But plenty of people questioning targeted assassination also protested George Zimmerman’s killing of the unarmed Martin.

Weirdly, today would be Trayvon Martin’s 18th birthday. I think people who care about justice have hearts and minds big enough to be concerned about all forms of injustice, and potential injustice. Late last year I admitted I looked away from some of the more disturbing national security policies of the Obama administration before the election because I knew President Romney would almost certainly pursue worse ones. But in the president’s last term, I think it’s incumbent on people who care about civil liberties to care about these policies. It would be a shame if Obama’s popularity made people who once cared about such issues care less.

Finally, it should be noted that the OLC “white paper” was leaked to Isikoff, not formally released. I’m not going to be dishonest and say I’d like the policies it describes any more had it been voluntarily disclosed, but at least it would be a gesture toward transparency by the administration. We also don’t know if this is indeed the rationale the president used to justify killing the al-Awlakis; there’s evidence that it is not, and that the specific legal case was outlined in another still secret memo. The worst thing about this policy is that it’s been pursued with zero checks, balances, accountability or transparency. That, at least, should change in the months to come.

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