Obama the Pioneer

The accusation that the President has failed to deliver Change is, in certain key respects, unfair

Published August 4, 2012 11:32AM (EDT)

(updated below)

Earlier this week, The New Yorker's Steve Coll wrote an excellent column on President Obama's kill list and assassination powers. Regarding the lawsuit brought by the ACLU and CCR on behalf of three American victims of Obama's assassinations -- a legal challenge which CBS News' Andrew Cohen called "the most important lawsuit filed so far this year" and "the most important lawsuit filed in the war on terror since President Barack Obama took office" -- Coll argued that it "is to the due-process clause what the proposed march of neo-Nazis through a community that included many Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois, was to the First Amendment": "an instance where the most onerous facts imaginable should lead to the durable affirmation of constitutional principle, as Skokie did."

Coll also pointed to "evidence [] suggesting that the Obama Administration leans toward killing terrorism suspects because it does not believe it has a politically attractive way to put them on trial," which tracks Noam Chomsky's pithy observation earlier this year: "If the Bush administration didn't like somebody, they'd kidnap them and send them to torture chambers. If the Obama administration decides they don’t like somebody, they murder them." Coll also dissects the standard excuses offered by Obama defenders for the seizure of this power, including the moral and factual defects of the excuse that it's acceptable to kill an accused Terrorist suspect if it's difficult to apprehend and try him (in the Awlaki case, the Obama administration never even charged or indicted him before executing him).

But what really stood out was Coll's recounting of the events leading up to Awlaki's assassination:

President Barack Obama had personally authorized the killing. "I want Awlaki," he is said to have told his advisers at one point. "Don't let up on him." The President's bracing words about a fellow American are reported in "Kill or Capture," a recent and important book on the Obama Administration’s detention and targeted-killing programs, by Daniel Klaidman, a former deputy editor of Newsweek.

With those words attributed to Obama, Klaidman has reported what would appear to be the first instance in American history of a sitting President speaking of his intent to kill a particular U.S. citizen without that citizen having been charged formally with a crime or convicted at trial.

Please re-read that bolded part to appreciate the magnitude of Obama's trail blazing. When The New York Times, back in April, 2010, first confirmed the inclusion of an American citizen on Obama's hit list, it, too, noted: "It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said." But it was only recently known what a personal role Obama himself played in ordering the historically unprecedented hit. As a result, writes Coll, "President Obama and his advisers have opened the door to violent action against American citizens by future Presidents when the facts may be much less compelling." In fairness to Obama, he did campaign on a promise of change, and vesting the President with the power to order the execution of citizens in secret and with no oversight certainly qualifies as that.

Another part of Coll's article relates to the big, exciting Election Year controversy of the moment: the perfectly legitimate demand that Mitt Romney release more of his tax returns. Here we have the political campaign of the same President who, in another moment of trailblazing, has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, and whose top aides secretly met at coffee houses with industry lobbyists to draft bills so as to evade disclosure and record preservation requirements, marching, apparently with a straight face, behind the banner of transparency to demand disclosure of his opponent's tax returns.

Specifically with regard to Obama's assassinations, Coll notes the extreme secrecy behind which they are ordered: "None of Obama’s legal advisers has testified similarly about what secret system and classified legal memos may exist for judging, in the case of an American citizen targeted overseas, whether and why a capture attempt may be feasible." Indeed, when Awlaki's father sued in advance to try to prevent the U.S. Government from killing his American son without due process, the Obama DOJ told a federal court that Obama's assassination program was too secret even to permit judicial adjudiciation of its legality.

So to summarize the Obama campaign's apparent argument: it's absolutely vital that we know all about the GOP nominee's tax shelters and financial transactions over the last decade (and indeed, we should know about that), but we need not bother ourselves with how the Democratic nominee is deciding which Americans should die, his claimed legal authority for ordering those hits, the alleged evidence for believing the target deserves to be executed, or the criteria used to target them. So low are one's expectations for an American Election Year that there are very few spectacles so absurd as to be painful to behold, but the Obama campaign's waving of the transparency flag definitely qualifies.

* * * * *

The new Egyptian government has demanded the immediate release of the one Egyptian citizen still detained at Guantanamo: the 54-year-old Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed, who has been imprisoned in the camp since late 2001. The spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said this when explaining the demand: "He was not charged with any crime until now. He is an Egyptian citizen detained in an illegal manner." Indeed, in the 11 years he has been held, Ahmed was charged with a crime only once, back in 2008, but those charges were dropped before he could contest them and he was never re-charged. So now we have Egypt denouncing the illegal detention practices of the U.S., and it's virtually impossible to contest the validity of those objections. Anyone who believes President Obama bears no responsibility for this ongoing scheme of due-process-free indefinite detention, on the ground that Congress prevented him from closing Guantanamo, should review the actual facts.


UPDATE: In Esquire today, Tom Junod looks at the current fixation in Washington over bolstering the secrecy regime and further punishing leaks, and persuasively argues that the problem in the U.S. is excessive secrecy, not excessive disclosures. He describes what he encountered in the course of writing his recent influential article on Obama's assassinations, "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama":

I answer from my own experience: For four months, I tried to find out what happened to Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. I never did. Nobody has. There have been no "leaks" about him. By the terms of the current debate, however, the silence regarding the death by drone of a 16-year-old American is what should be applauded. Indeed, by the terms of the current debate, any official who steps forward and finally reveals how Abdulrahman al-Awlaki died would be liable to criminal prosecution, not to mention the shrill castigation of the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain.

But if as a journalist I would call him a source instead of a leaker, it's as an American I would call him a hero instead of a criminal.

For all the current hysteria about massive leaking, the reality is that the U.S. Government operates behind a more impenetrable wall of secrecy than ever before -- exercising the most extremist and threatening powers a government can wield, without a shred of transparency -- led by a President whose campaign argues that the Republic will be jeopardized if Mitt Romney isn't more transparent about his personal tax shelters.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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