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Either way, it's definitely disturbing, and (a term I don't often use) downright un-American.

What is? The fact that the Obama White House has ordered the CIA to assassinate an American citizen, wherever and whenever he may be found. A man who's been charged with no crime, much less convicted of one.

The ostensible reason? "Terrorism," of course.

That this is absolutely unconscionable and inexcusable should go without saying. But apparently it doesn't, since people I know to be smart, thoughtful liberals have been making excuses for it. I'm astonished to find no discussion of it here on DK. [ETA: revisiting my search, I did find a few diaries.] So let's talk about it for a bit.

[crossposted here]

The man in question is one Anwar al-Awlaki. He's a Muslim cleric, born and raised in the U.S., who's long been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. He's currently in hiding in Yemen. He's advocated attacks on U.S. military targets... which in itself remains constitutionally protected free speech, however distasteful one may find it. He's also corresponded with the perpetrators of the Fort Hood shootings and the attempted Christmas Day "underwear bombing," but he denies active involvement in planning either attack.

However, our government now alleges that he's become an active recruiter for an al Qaeda affiliate, and has thus crossed a line into being a "military target." He now poses a danger that "is no longer confined to words." How do we know this? Well, as the New York Times puts it, this is what "American intelligence officials... say they believe... on condition of anonymity."

In other words, no one is willing to put any specific charges on the record, much less evidence to support them, nor has al-Awlaki been offered any opportunity to defend himself or confront his accusers. No court has had the chance to determine whether there's so much as probable cause to believe any of this. He's simply assumed to be guilty on the say-so of anonymous officials, despite the fact that his family vehemently denies the allegations.

This would be an appropriate time to remind ourselves of the Fifth  Amendment to the Constitution. It guarantees that "No person shall...  be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." There has manifestly been no due process here. Not a trace of it.

The policy allowing this sort of thing was put in place by the Bush administration, but it was never exercised. Until now. By Obama.


People concerned about civil liberties and abuse of power objected when the Bush administration spied on Americans without judicial warrants. We objected to our government kidnapping and disappearing people suspected of involvement with terrorism. We objected to imprisoning people without evidence or charge. We objected to torturing them. If all those things were unacceptable -- and they manifestly were -- then how much more extreme is it, how much more blatantly wrong is it, to kill people by executive fiat? Even our conservative Supreme Court, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, held that a citizen deemed an "enemy combatant" must at the very least have access to judicial habeas corpus proceedings.

Yet many who should object are instead attempting to defend and rationalize this abominable policy.

"But we're at war!," people say. (A NY Daily News editorial makes much of this argument.) Well, no, actually we're not. Shooting and bombing alone does not a war make. War is something that takes place between sovereign nations, as defined and constrained in very specific terms by binding international treaties and domestic law under the Constitution. You can't conduct a war against a nebulous international network of conspirators, which is what al Qaeda is. What we've been doing since 2001 is using military force in a widespread multinational counterinsurgency effort. (Which was a strategic mistake from the start, trying to force what should have been an intelligence and law-enforcement exercise into an outdated and short-sighted military paradigm. But I digress.)

It's a real distinction, however much the PTB have tried to fuzzy it up  the last few years. If you're asserting that special legal powers flow from wartime conditions, then you can't get around acknowledging that this is only so because war, itself, is a special legal status. And we're not in it.

Moreover, legally, even if time of genuine war, the right to kill other people begins and ends "on the battlefield" (and/or in "enemy territory"). In a sense war is a large-scale expansion of the principle of self-defense:  deadly force is only justifiable against someone who's   posing a clear and imminent threat. Yet even if al-Awlaki has done   everything alleged against him, whatever "threat" he poses is anything   but clear or imminent.

"But he's the enemy!" Why should we believe this? We know that anonymous "officials" and the intelligence community have been disastrously wrong before (or simply lied). We know that the detainees held at Guantanamo, allegedly "the worst of the worst" captured "on the battlefield," were often nothing of the sort, and that most of them have been released. We know that we've mistakenly imprisoned and tortured innocent cab drivers and scholars and sheepherders. All of this is undisputed fact. So why on earth should we now take the word of similar officials, completely anonymous and unaccountable, in this case? This is why due process of law exists: to hold the government publicly accountable for the way it exercises its power over  individuals.

"He's fair game: he's using his keyboard as a weapon, so wherever he is is a battlefield!" This kind of argument was logically and legally specious when Bush made it, and it's no better now. It turns the entire world into a battlefield, and thus reduces the term to meaninglessness. America isn't facing any existential threat, and it certainly isn't facing attack from the entire world. This is nothing but a handwaving excuse for government to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, with impunity.

The CIA really shouldn't be in the business of assassinations in the first place. Time was, allegations of this kind of behavior were controversial enough to prompt congressional hearings, and for years the agency (dishonestly) denied that it had ever done any such thing. Apparently times have changed: now it's not only acceptable to have an official hit list, but it can include U.S. citizens without a shred of due process. The "war on terror" continues to debase our very concept of justice, as Dahlia Lithwick has written eloquently in Slate.

Over at Salon, meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald has done his usual exemplary job of dissecting everything that's wrong with this policy, detail by excruciating detail. Keith Olbermann at MSNBC has spoken out against it as well. So it's not as if there aren't prominent criticisms being voiced. But what's disturbing is that there's even a debate. Indeed, opposition should transcend political boundaries: this is the sort of thing that paranoid right-wingers like Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh really ought to be raising the roof about, if there's even a grain of integrity to their expressed concerns about excessive government power. But there isn't, of course; Hating Terr'ists is far more important to them, so they've remained silent.

That's unsurprising... but what's indescribably sadder is how many seemingly reasonable people are willing to accept this, as can be seen in the discussion threads on any of the links above, and as I've discovered in my own discussions with friends online. Indeed, one Facebook friend (a liberal who works professionally in politics!) complained that objecting to this is "precisely this sort of "schoolmarmish leftism" that has destroyed the progressive movement." Right. Insisting on important principles, demanding that a president actually obey the Constitution he took an oath to uphold... that's what's hurt progressives. If only we'd stop standing for things, we'd be taken ever so much more seriously!

What we're talking about here is extrajudicial murder. Nothing more, nothing less. If we can't draw a line at that, we can't draw one anywhere.


Terrorism is a bad thing: stipulated. It suffers from a fundamental disconnect between ends and means, in terms both moral and logical. But so does this assassination policy. It isn't just wrong ethically, it's wrong pragmatically, if the goal is reduce the threat of terrorism. Did this kind of thing ever work for the British against the IRA? Did it work for the Soviets against Afghanistan? Has it worked for Israel against the Palestinians? In every case, and countless others, the answer is no. All it achieves is to undermine the moral authority of the more powerful country, and provide a rallying point for its opponents.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter if al-Awlaki really is as bad as anonymous officials claim. It doesn't matter what he's done or threatened to do. I don't care if he's the Muslim equivalent of David Koresh, Charles Manson, and John Gotti all rolled into one: it doesn't matter.

What matters is that this is America, and this country's very existence is  based on certain fundamental principles of human rights and the rule of  law. Those principles say that our government doesn't get to kill people  by executive fiat. Period. Full stop. If we abandon those principles,  we abandon our very claim to legitimacy as a nation. And having Obama behind this doesn't make it better, it makes it worse: if this sort of thing is deemed acceptable under a supposedly "liberal" Democrat, if this precedent is set, imagine what the right-wingers will try to get away with next time they're in power.

When facing a moral conflict, what's important is not "doing whatever it takes to win," though some will always try to frame things that way. What's important is holding on to principle and standing by what's right. This isn't it.

Originally posted to lawman on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 04:34 AM PDT.


Do you support Obama putting an American citizen on an assassination hit list without due process of law?

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| 41 votes | Vote | Results

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (6+ / 0-)

    Blogging on politics and pop culture at SmartRemarks

    by lawman on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 04:34:14 AM PDT

  •  There have been a lot of diaries (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    on this subject, actually.

    Briefly to your key assertions (Scotus cases that cut agaimst your claims in paren):

    - enemy combatants, citizens or not, don't have fifth amendment rights (ex parte quirin)

    - we can have a state of war against entities that aren't sovereign states (Prize Cases)

    - we are at war w/ al-qaeda (Hamdan, Hamdi)

    Whatever the morality of the decision to kill this guy, it certainly appears to be legal.

    •  Okay, you're right about one thing... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      lightfoot, jm214

      ...there have been diaries. I went back and fiddled with the search engine more diligently than before, and discovered about ten scattered across the past week or so. I'll have to give 'em a look. Not as prominent a discussion as one might expect, but it's there.

      As to the rest, though...

      ...those cases just don't mean what you (briefly) claim they do.

      Quirin applied specifically to agents of an official enemy state (Germans in WW II), and even so determined that they required at least the minimal due process afforded by a military tribunal.

      Prize dates to 1862, and served to establish that the Civil War did not require recognizing the Confederacy's sovereign status, because "A war may exist where one of the belligerents claims sovereign rights as against the other."

      Hamdan and Hamdi were about delineating the limits of the executive power granted by Congress's Authorization for Military Force, which was not the same thing as a declaration of war.

      So, legally speaking, all of those cases are pretty clearly distinguishable from the circumstances at hand.

      And that still leaves the arguments concerning morality, practical policy, and political precedent, none of which you addressed.

      Blogging on politics and pop culture at SmartRemarks

      by lawman on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 05:17:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  rejoinder: (0+ / 0-)
        One of the defendants in Quirin was a US citizen.  Prize Cases specifically addresses the question of whether war can be waged entity that isn't a sovereign state.

        There are references to the prez's powers during war, to the laws of war, etc. all over Hamdi and Hamdan.  They presuppose that the aumf triggered the state of war for legal purposes.

        •  Yeah, might maketh right. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          "Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee.

          by jm214 on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 06:12:12 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  You're missing the point (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          lawman, lightfoot

          No one disputes that an American citizen who has become a combatant against the United States can use that citizenship to shield themselves from the consequences of that decision to wage war up to an including death on the battlefield.

          The relevant question is who gets to decide that he's a combatant. None of the precedents you cite deal with the executive unilaterally designating a US citizen a combatant. It's undoubtedly true that Obama could demonstrate that al-Awlaki is a combatant given the evidence, but he should do so openly. If al-Awlaki is a combatant he's already on notice, we don't need the executive secretly deciding who is and is not eligible for CIA assassination.

          •  Enemy combatant = I'll kill whoever (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            I f**king well please.  I definitely expected Bush to use the power granted to him by an idiot Congress to declare open season on U.S. citizens.  That Obama is doing it is obscene.

            I am become Man, the destroyer of worlds

            by tle on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 08:08:58 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  Gee, I hate to agree with you, Owl.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      ...what do you do about an organized conspiracy that seeks to attack the US in a fashion that resembles an attack by a sovereign nation?

      ...and when willn it ever be over?  What are the conditions that would define an end of hostilities?

      Sounds like never ending war to me...

      Wake Up It's 1984!

      "Ronald Reagan is DEAD! His policies live on but we're doing something about THAT!"

      by leftykook on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 05:27:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  So... what if (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burrow owl

    Anwar is hiding in an area where, going in on the ground would mean you may capture him, but suffer U.S. casualties. Or, use a drone.

    Free University and Health Care for all, now. -8.88, -7.13

    by SoCalHobbit on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 05:03:55 AM PDT

  •  I agree that ordering a hit like this (0+ / 0-)

    violates any pretense of due process, but a quibble:

    He's advocated attacks on U.S. military targets... which in itself remains constitutionally protected free speech, however distasteful one may find it.

    I think that advocating violence is not protected speech; further, I think this guy could be charged with treason for this specific sort of advocacy. Just clarifying.

    The overwhelming consensus of 2,000+ scientific experts from the IPCC& 18 US scientific assns: climate change is happening and is a growing threat to our wo

    by Cenobyte on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 06:01:05 AM PDT

    •  People advocate violence all the time. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Check out threads on Afghanistan here at dKos.

      Hell, checkout threads on that 2007 wikileaks video from Iraq.

      Folks even advocate murdering the Good Samaritan, right here on dKos.

      I suspect that it is legal, however morally bankrupt it might seem to this old and fat pacifist.

  •  What this comes down to is the base nature (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lawman, lightfoot

    of all us dumb-shit humans, of whatever stripe or hue. How many of you get off on those Hellfire/Reaper videos up on YouTube, what do you REALY feel when you watch that wikileaks vid for the umpteenth time, or "play" your combat simulations, or go along with the propaganda flow from those storyboarders in "Hollywood" or the Pentagon, or have wished death on a President or member of Congress or "banker" no matter how deserving you think it is?  

    For all the "angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pinners" finding textual cover for arbitrary murder by government, think a bit on whether your mental techniques can't and are not being equally as shallowly applied by "Hajjis" and "towelheads" to "justify" under warped extractions from the Qu'ran and commentaries the same exact quantum of behavior that you are shilling for.

    Face it, face what you and what all of us are: Self-justifying bullshit artists, driven by tribal impulses and a darkness that goes back to the day that Cain picked up that rock and shattered the skull of Abel.

    For Burrow Owl, are you an attorney? Then maybe you know of that famous law review piece by some Yale prof that paired up the 50-odd "RULES" of statutory interpretation by courts: "statutes of general effect are to be strictly construed" versus "remedial statutes are to be broadly construed," and all the rest. There is no such animal as "the law," just a process that obviously is easily perverted by bias and power. You want to get into the "legalisms" because that helps you with the squeams you might get from thinking about the bloodlust that's really the Heart of Darkness at the heart of it all. "It's okay for 'us' to do this because we want to do it and can find some sematic cover for it." That's kind of what's at the heart of the fascist notion that power justifies itself in its exercise.

    But hey, this is as usual a waste of time and words, we stupid violent humans have made a world of War that way outstrips our evolutionary state to continue as a viable species.

    Stupid fucking humans.

    "Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee.

    by jm214 on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 06:10:52 AM PDT

    •  I agree with much of this... (0+ / 0-)

      ...but not the words "all of us."

      I take heart from the fact that some people, in some corners of the media and the blogosphere, are objecting. I take heart from the results of the poll attached to my post.

      I think there really is a fundamental philosophical divide at the heart of this, something that transcends liberal vs. conservative. Some of us, at our core, really are comfortable trusting authority figures. (At least, if we can rationalize that they think more-or-less like us: a "responsible adult" like Obama.) We're attracted to the notion of a strong, unilateral executive. We want someone to make the "tough decisions" on our behalf. And deep down, we aren't really bothered by using violence to solve problems.

      But some of us aren't. We trust the law, however imperfect, as the only real bulwark against tyranny. We understand that power, no matter whose hands it rests in, will be abused if not held accountable to the people. And we realize that violence is always the last refuge of the incompetent.

      Some of us are scared of "terror" and believe we really do need a "war" on it, and buy into phrases like "whatever it takes"... and the rest of us just can't relate to that at all. Some of us are simply willing to go along as necessary if it helps "our guy" stay in power... and the rest of us see something more important at stake here than being on the winning team.

      I'm finding myself stumped at how to bridge this divide. And it's very disconcerting.

      Blogging on politics and pop culture at SmartRemarks

      by lawman on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 11:09:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Orwellian, btw. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    lawman, lightfoot

    To be Kafkaesque would be if we arrested him and then confined him within the maze of bureaucracy.

  •  The DKos bubble (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    This may have been already discussed in other diaries, but like those diaries this one is sliding right out of sight.

    As an alternate source of news DKos is transitioning from a good general source to something more like an apparatus of the Democratic Party.

    Found this at Common Dreams:

    Published on Friday, April 9, 2010 by
    Olbermann on Obama's Assassination Program

    by Glenn Greenwald

  •  A crime (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tom J

    He's advocated attacks on U.S. military targets... which in itself remains constitutionally protected free speech,...

    Subornation of a crime is in itself a crime, not protected by free speech.

    Reality is just a convenient measure of complexity. -- Alvy Ray Smith

    by John Q on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 09:12:31 AM PDT

    •  i agree with that, even though i very much (0+ / 0-)

      oppose the policy of targeted assassination.

      Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. -MLK

      by Tom J on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 09:58:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  To suborn... (0+ / 0-)

      ...means to induce, equip, or otherwise facilitate a crime. There is a substantive difference between that and simple advocacy.

      Blogging on politics and pop culture at SmartRemarks

      by lawman on Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 11:11:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  American Heritage Dictionary definition (0+ / 0-)

        To induce (a person) to commit an unlawful or evil act.

        Where do you draw the line between "advocating" and "inducing"?

        Reality is just a convenient measure of complexity. -- Alvy Ray Smith

        by John Q on Tue Apr 13, 2010 at 03:27:50 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's my belief (0+ / 0-)

          that the UK should have indicted Khomeni for subornation of murder when he issued the fatwa calling for Rushdie to be killed.

          Reality is just a convenient measure of complexity. -- Alvy Ray Smith

          by John Q on Tue Apr 13, 2010 at 03:30:22 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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