Obama Has Broken New Ground - In the Unilateral Assassination of People He Deems our Enemy
This story was originally published at Salon.
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 observationearlier 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.