Questions for Andrew Sullivan

A partial defense of Obama's assassination program highlights the corrupted rationale that justifies it

Published September 30, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II [Friday] - Update III [Reply from and to Sullivan])

Andrew Sullivan quotes from an excellent column by Alex Massie in The Spectator.  Massie points to Obama's assassination program and writes: "you can make an argument that Obama's actions are worse than Bush's since a) he wasn't charged with cobbling together a security framework in the confused, panicked aftermath of 9/11 and b) he actually, you know, once campaigned against quite a lot of this stuff."  Andrew, basically objecting to Massie's claim, makes several points in response that merit attention and, at least for me, prompt various questions.  Andrew:

But a single American al Qaeda terrorist in a foreign country actively waging war against us seems to me to be a pretty isolated example.

First, Awlaki is most certainly not a singular case.  Obama's "hit list" has at least four Americans on it; Awlaki is the only one whose identity we know.  From The Washington Post's Dana Priest in January:  "After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad . . . . The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. . . . . As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi's name has now been added."

Second, could Andrew please explain how he knows that Awlaki is an "al Qaeda terrorist"?  Being an "al Qaeda terrorist" is a crime with which many people have been charged and convicted.  But Awlaki never has been.  Are the untested, leaked accusations from government officials really enough for Andrew to conclude that an American citizen is a "terrorist" and, accordingly, support the imposition of the death penalty?  Does Andrew not need or want to see any actual evidence -- let alone have that evidence subjected to due process and checks and balances -- before simply assuming and asserting that an accusation like that is true?  Does the lengthy record of error and/or abuse under both Bush and Obama -- whereby countless people have been falsely accused of being Terrorists -- not preclude a rational person from vesting blind faith in unchecked government accusations of this sort?  

Third, the "just an isolated case" defense was frequently invoked by Bush supporters.  There were "only two" American citizens detained for years without charges by the Bush administration -- Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi.  Did that make the assertion of that tyrannical power more acceptable to Andrew?  The claim at the time from those of us who vehemently opposed it was that if you endorse what is being done to those two individuals, then by necessity you've vested the President with the power to detain Americans without charges or due process -- not just the current President but future ones as well.  Isn't that same concern exactly applicable to Obama's asserted assassination power, no matter how many individuals --at the moment -- are targeted?  And can Andrew point to a single, similar awesome power seized by political leaders on the ground of "war" that did not end up being severely abused when it was exercised in the dark?

I agree that invoking state secrets so comprehensively as to prevent any scrutiny of this is a step way too far. 

But given that they have invoked this, and have thus shrouded their case against Awlaki in total secrecy, why is Andrew willing to assert that Awlaki is a terrorist, and not only assert it, but do so with such conviction that he's comfortable with the death penalty being imposed based on nothing more than unchecked Presidential decree?

But I do believe we are at war; and that killing those who wish to kill us before they can do so is not the equivalent of "assassination". 

Are we "at war" on the entire planet -- the centerpiece of the Bush/Cheney assertion of radical powers -- or are there physical limits to where the President's war powers apply, i.e., where the "battlefield" is?  If we're "at war" anywhere and everywhere Terrorists are found, does that apply to U.S. soil?  Can Obama also order American citizens killed without due process on U.S. soil if he accuses them of being members of Al Qaeda?  What possible coherent limits could one assert to deny that power?  And is merely harboring a "wish" to "kill us" sufficient to make someone a Terrorist, or do they actually have to take affirmative steps to harm Americans?

My concern has always been with the power to detain without due process and torture, not the regrettable necessity of killing the enemy in a hot and dangerous war. 

This is the claim I have long found most confounding.  In what conceivable moral or legal universe is it intolerable merely to detain someone without due process -- something Bush did to great controversy and outrage -- but acceptable to kill them without due process?  Given that wrongful due-process-free detention can be corrected, whereas wrongful due-process-free killing cannot be, isn't the former far more acceptable than the latter?  Also recall that Bush's mere eavesdropping on Americans without due process or oversight caused a major national scandal; it's true that Bush's eavesdropping was illegal, but it was also claimed to be so dangerous because it lacked any oversight:  how can Obama's killing of American citizens without due process or oversight possibly be more tolerable than Bush's mere eavesdropping?  

Also, the language Andrew uses -- "a hot and dangerous war" -- implies that the person being targeted is involved in some sort of active hostilities at the time we kill him.  But that's not the case.  The kill order permits them to be targeted no matter what they are doing at the moment the drone lands on their head:  sleeping, playing with their children, riding in a car with their parents, anything else far away from a battlefield.  Besides torture, if the President has the authority to order American citizens killed without a shred of due process under those circumstances, what doesn't he have the power to do provided he simply accuses them of being an Al Qaeda Terrorist?  I spent years asking that question during the Bush/Cheney era without getting an answer -- Al Gore asked the same question in 2006:  "under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited?" -- and sadly, the question is every bit as relevant now.


UPDATE:  I have one other question for Andrew:  one of the rhetorical questions frequently posed to Bush supporters was this one:  with regard to all of these unchecked powers which you're now endorsing, would you feel equally comfortable having them exercised by a Democratic President; would you be happy with, say, Hillary Clinton having the power to eavesdrop on or even detain American citizens with no due process, purely on her own unilateral decree?  Would Andrew be comfortable with a future Republican President -- let's say, just to pick a random example . . . . President Sarah Palin -- having the power to order American citizens killed based solely on her unchecked accusation that they are somehow involved with or helping Al Qaeda Terrorists, while the targeted citizens have no recourse to any courts and she has no obligation to offer any evidence to justify the targeting?


UPDATE II:  Last night, Andrew wrote:

Answers For Glenn Greenwald

Just a quick word to say that I hope to respond to his excellent questions very soon - it's just been a busy day on the personal front and I didn't want to dash off a response unworthy of the challenge. I also had a column to write today - the one you can't read any more without paying for it.

I appreciate that and look forward to the responses.


UPDATE III: Sullivan's reply to this post is here, and my response to that is here.

By Glenn Greenwald

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