White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that the Obama administration will not be releasing any more information about the controversial use of drones to kill American citizens.
Carney’s remarks, via the White House’s transcript of the off-camera press gaggle:
“This is not an open-ended process. This is a specific and unique accommodation in this circumstance. The fact is, when it comes to public disclosure, we have been — not with the kind of attention that’s been given it this week — but we have been publicly discussing these matters at the highest levels of government for the very reason that I’ve given, which is the President understands that these are core issues about how we conduct ourselves in war, how the President of the United States — any President — balances his constitutional obligation to protect America and American citizens, and his obligation to do so in a manner that is lawful under the Constitution and reflects our values.”
President Obama’s white paper justification for carrying out drone strikes against U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism could “swallow the rule” guaranteeing the due process rights of Americans, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, suggested today…
“You would think that consistent with the principles of due process, the government shouldn’t be able to kill one of its own citizens without some kind of showing that they present an imminent threat,” he continued. “But when you dig a little bit deeper into this white paper . . . they have sort of a loose [definition] of ‘imminent’.”…
The former appellate lawyer also criticized the White House for failing to identify a constitutional principle that would prevent the U.S. military from carrying out a drone strike on a suspected American terrorist in the United States.
It may be true that, even when it comes to the first two conditions, the “informed, high-level officials” in the Obama administration—including Brennan, who has been deeply involved in these decisions—have exercised good judgment. But we don’t know this; we have no way of knowing this. And by “we,” I mean not just those of who of us who don’t have the proper security clearances, but also those who do (outside, of course, the very small group that makes the decisions of life or death).
And that’s the point. The white paper acknowledges that there is no entity—in the executive, legislative, or judicial branch—that has the authority to oversee these sorts of decisions. But maybe there should be. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Intelligence Committee, suggested at Thursday’s hearing that an analog to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court might be created to sign off on these orders, especially if American citizens are the targets. Not a bad idea.
But the logic of the three conditions—or at least the two conditions that aren’t at all restrictive—raises questions not just of legality but of policy. Gen. David Petraeus once said of the Iraq war, “Tell me how this ends.” The same question can be asked of this war. Are there no limits to targeted assassination? Are we going to be doing this as long as terrorist organizations exist? What is the effect? Does it really reduce terrorism and pummel the organization—or are the killed leaders simply replaced by underlings waiting in the wings?
Further, in addition to checks and balances, there has to be more transparency. The notion that the government can compile a list of citizens for killing, not tell anyone who’s on it or how they got there, is simply un–American. Surely, a modern version of a WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE notice could be publicly circulated, with a listing of the particulars. Maybe the named individual would turn himself in rather than wait for the drones to find him. Or maybe he’d hire an attorney to present evidence he’s not actually an imminent threat to American citizens.
For centuries, civilized societies have understood that even wars must be fought according to rules, which have developed over time in response to changing realities. Rules are even more important in endless, murky wars such as the fight against Islamist terror groups. Currently, we’re letting whomever is in the Oval Office pick and choose from among the existing rules, applying and redefining them based on his own judgment and that of his advisors. We can do better.
During the hearing, Feinstein forcefully insisted that the CIA’s drone strikes kill only “single digits” of civilians annually, and even ran through a list of accusations against Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen and al-Qaida propagandist the U.S. killed in Yemen in 2011, to underscore her belief in the legitimacy of the killing. She suggested that media reports and nongovernmental organization studies claiming larger percentages of civilian deaths from the highly classified program are ignorant. Feinstein emphasized that the CIA has hosted committee staff over 30 times to conduct oversight over the drone program…
Yet Feinstein and several other senators during the hearing said the CIA materially misrepresented to Congress key facts about the quality of information it received from its post-9/11 torture and detentions program. That revelation came from the committee’s recently completed 6,000-page report into those programs. But since the report is still classified, senators couldn’t say outright that the CIA lied to them. Brennan said that the misstatements made by CIA about torture called into question the basis for his public statements years ago that torture extracted valuable information for counterterrorist operations. “I have to determine what the truth is,” Brennan said.
But if the CIA misled Congress about torture, how can the committee be confident it’s not misleading Congress about civilian deaths from drones?
Can we learn at least a little from the past? And not the distant past, either. Enough of the detainees at Gitmo were wrongly held so that you’d figure Obama (didn’t he pledge to shut that prison down?) would want to make double-plus sure that he’s targeting the right bastards?…
By making clear that as a journalist he tries to see things first and foremost from the perspective of the powerful, Michael Tomasky helps to clarify why so many in the media are rushing to the president’s defense. They are entranced with power and the view from the top. “Presidents live with that responsibility [of protecting American lives] every day,” he writes. “If that responsibility were mine, I can’t honestly say what I’d do, and I don’t think anyone can.” Not all journalists are awed by power, of course, even on the right (National Review’s Jim Geraghty, for instance, asserts that this sort of thing of extra-judicial killing policy wouldn’t be cricket even under a GOP president).
This isn’t ultimately about ideological hypocrisy – of liberals changing their tune once their guy is in office – but something much more basic and much more disturbing. It reveals that for all their crowing about being watchdogs of all that is good and decent in society, when push comes to shove, too many journalists are ready and willing handmaidens to power – including the power to kill.
The white paper has ignited not quite a firestorm (again, this isn’t the Bush administration), but at least a smoldering ember of brow-furrowed consternation among the president’s supporters and journalistic sympathizers who find the document “chilling.”
They rarely say what their alternative would be. Does a U.S. citizen get an exemption from targeting if he joins Al Qaeda at a high level? Should his status be litigated before he can be targeted, and if so, by whom and for how long and on the basis of what evidence? Can he show up in the court room to confront his accusers, a basic element of the Anglo-American system? Should al-Awlaki have gotten a court-appointed lawyer (assuming Gloria Allred wasn’t available) and access to all the intelligence about him so he could properly contest it? Maybe over Skype from somewhere in the badlands of Yemen?…
It’s not for nothing that the author of the white paper sounds like he could have worked for Dick Cheney. The Obama administration’s approach reflects the logic of the laws of war, the structure of American government and the exigencies of the fight against Al Qaeda.
By including terrorists among those afforded constitutional protections, the president’s policy risks stretching those protections a mile wide and an inch deep—weakening them for all Americans.
Then there’s the question of whether Mr. Obama’s approach really uses “our values as a compass.” After he took office, the president made a great show of ending enhanced interrogation, which CIA directors say produced much of the intelligence used to locate al Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden. The Bush administration had subjected about 100 al Qaeda detainees to some tough methods, including three to waterboarding.
Rather than capture terrorists—which produces the most valuable intelligence on al Qaeda—Mr. Obama has relied almost exclusively on drone attacks, and he has thereby been able to dodge difficult questions over detention. But those deaths from the sky violate personal liberty far more than the waterboarding of three al Qaeda leaders ever did.
Our president has the authority to quell insurrections by force. American-born terrorists engage in insurrection. Case closed.
Consider the late Anwar al-Awlaki. Lefties argue he didn’t pose a sufficient threat to merit killing. Really? Here’s a traitor who joined our most virulent enemies and used his knowledge of our country to encourage, plan and facilitate attacks. His guilt was greater than that of some poor sap who strapped on a suicide bomb — just as crime bosses bear a heavier guilt than their trigger-men.
And if a foreign power can’t or won’t control its own territory, we have a legal right to intervene under the accepted conventions of warfare…
This is not a difficult issue: When Americans turn violently against the United States, they lose the benefits of citizenship…
[T]he drone program’s the only Obama-era policy that works.
“I want everybody that said what they said about George W. Bush…I want those people to apologize to George W. Bush.”