Richard Cohen suddenly worried about scope of presidential anti-terror powers

The Washington Post's biggest hack is alarmed to find himself agreeing with -- gasp! -- the ACLU

Published October 11, 2011 8:41PM (EDT)

  (Sigrid Estrada/Washington Post)
(Sigrid Estrada/Washington Post)

Richard Cohen, the universe's worst opinion columnist, has rather belatedly and unexpectedly grown alarmed at the size and scope of the expensive, unaccountable death machine that is our counter-terror state. Don't get alarmed -- he's still no bleeding-heart anti-American hippie crying about the "rights" of terrorists who hate us and want to destroy us for our freedom -- but the idea that an American citizen's death warrant can be secretly signed by a couple of Justice Department lawyers seems to have shaken Cohen out of his 40-year fog of elite Beltway complacency. Sort of.

This is a big leap for Richard Cohen, a writer who hates democracy and defended Dick Cheney's torture regime as recently as 2009. (2009!)

So he begins by pointing out that he cheered the death of Anwar al-Awlaki:

A little “yippee” emitted from me when I heard the news. Awlaki was a traitor to his country and its values. He was allegedly a senior recruiter for al-Qaeda and was linked to the Fort Hood shooting suspect Nidal Malik Hasan as well as other attempted terror acts. Awlaki was not shy about his activities, and so they, not to mention his allegiance, were not in question.

But! This whole targeted killing of an American citizen thing is sort of problematic, according to the Constitution and "our founding ideals."

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized Awlaki’s killing. But so far, the only politician of note to do so is Rep. Ron Paul, the Republican presidential candidate with a touching reverence for the Constitution as written. “Al-Awlaki was born here; he’s an American citizen. He was never tried or charged for any crimes,” he exclaimed. Paul, though, gets dismissed as a constitutional kvetch.

I do not share Paul’s indignation, but I do his dismay. Something big and possibly dangerous has happened . . . in secret. Government’s most awesome power — to take a life — has been exercised on one of its own citizens without benefit of trial. A guy named Barron and another named Lederman apparently said it was okay. Maybe it was. But I’d sure like to hear the attorney general or the president explain why.

(This Barron guy and this Lederman guy are actually very prominent attorneys known, ironically, for their particularly sharp criticisms of the Bush administration's abuses of presidential war powers, but I wouldn't expect a man who's had a political column at Washington primary newspaper for 35 years to actually know anything at all about what he writes about, ever.)

But the last line gives the game away: Richard Cohen finds the idea of the president having the power to unilaterally order the execution of an American citizen absurd on its face. This puts him in league with people like Ron Paul and the ACLU. He does not wish for that sort of company. So he is begging for some grown-up Washington person to explain why this is all totally OK. He would like the president to reassure him. Won't somebody please reassure Richard Cohen that it's OK for the president to assassinate people?

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

MORE FROM Alex Pareene