Herman Cain: Spying on Americans Is Okay, But Not Assassinating Them

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The presidential candidate on warrantless wiretaps, executive killings, the war on drugs,  military tribunals, airport security, and more

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Herman Cain opposes targeting terrorists who are U.S. citizens for assassination. Expressing surprise and disbelief that the Obama administration has such a policy, the presidential candidate told The Atlantic that Americans accused of terrorist activity should be granted due process, unlike foreigners.

"This is the first that I have heard -- you're saying it's okay to take out American citizens if he suspects they are terrorist related. Is that what you said?!" the former Godfather's Pizza CEO said when queried on the topic. "I've got to be honest with you. I have not heard that. I don't believe that the president of the United States should order the assassination of citizens of the United States. That's why we have our court system, and that's why we have our laws." Cain's position put him at odds with the Obama administration policy to target, among others, Anwar al-Awlaki, who in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death has moved up the list as a major target for U.S. anti-terror efforts.

Though he suffers from low name recognition, Cain generates strong enthusiasm among voters who get to know him, and performed well in the first GOP candidates debate. A long shot for the nomination, he is all confidence, having declared last week that when he wins the presidency, "we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!" In order to test that hypothesis, I probed the candidate's positions on executive power and civil liberties in a 22 minute conversation that covered lots of ground but left no time for followup questions.

The constitutionality of the War in Libya is a secondary issue, Cain told me. He expressed uncertainty about whether we should still be in Afghanistan, said he'd be comfortable with intelligence agencies spying on Americans without a warrant for the purposes of counter-terrorism, and insisted that a warrant should be necessary for police to enter an American's home. Cain expressed support for the PATRIOT Act, and suggested that if 90 percent of a counter-terrorism law is sound we shouldn't worry about the other ten percent. Finally, he said that the TSA lacks common sense, and that harsher laws may be the answer in the war on drugs.

Those are just the highlights, of course. A very lightly edited transcript is below.  

Do you have thoughts on the War Powers Act and whether President Obama is permitted to be in Libya right now?

My thoughts are less on whether he has the authority to do what he's doing than why is he doing what he's doing. Clarity of what he's doing and why is more important than whether or not he has the authority to do it. I call it foggy foreign policy. It's not real clear where we're headed with that situation. We should have had a very clear plan before we got involved. So now the issue of does he have the power to commit resources at this point - to me that is not as big a question as why are we there, whose side are we on, what do we expect to gain out of this, and how long is it going to take? The bigger question is what I'm most concerned about.

If you were elected president, what would you need before committing American troops abroad? Would you feel like you had to go to Congress or that you could order it on your own authority?

First, I would make sure that the mission is clear. Secondly, I would make sure that we had the resources to accomplish the mission. If we had the resources to accomplish the mission, I would want to know, how long is it going to take? Or give me some rough range of how long it's going to take. And yes, once I define all of those factors, I have no problem going to Congress and respecting the Constitution in terms of what we need to do. The biggest issue here is, what's the mission. How does it best serve the interests of the United States of America? That's what I want to know before I commit our men and women in uniform. And the third thing is if we cannot win what is our exit strategy? I'm not real sure what we're doing in Libya, or what the exit strategy is for Afghanistan. That is why I categorize this as foggy foreign policy.

Do you think we still belong in Afghanistan?

I can't answer, because I don't have all the information that the president has in making that determination. Whether or not we should have gone in the first place? That's also is a fuzzy kind of thing. What's the mission in Afghanistan? Based on news reports, going to Afghanistan was supposed to be to help them fight off the Taliban. i think that's the mission, but I'm not sure. If that's the mission the next question is can we win in this fight against the Taliban. I don't know the answer to that. All I know is if you look back in history Russia tried the same thing. And they finally gave up.

Tell me about the domestic side of our counter-terrorism efforts. What kinds of protections should be in place in terms of federal law enforcement going into people's bank records or listening to their phone calls. Do you think that should require a warrant?

I'm a little troubled by police officers being able to go into a home without a warrant or a court order... But that being said, I would rather error on the side of detection - in terms of making sure that we have every opportunity to detect as well as anticipate any threats toward this country. I do believe in individual rights. I believe in privacy. But I also believe that we've got to give our intelligence agencies the leeway in order to be able to protect us. If I have to choose between political correctness or doing what's right to protect us I'll go with doing what's right to protect us every time.

Does that also apply to non-terrorism related things?

On non-terrorism related things, I think we can draw a much harder line in the sand as far as things that should not be done to invade our privacy.

Is there anything in the PATRIOT Act that bothers you, that you'd want to see reversed, or are you pretty much okay with that legislation?

I think that the PATRIOT Act is about 90 percent right on. I can't delineate to you exactly what I would want to change, but here again I would rather error on the side of caution and protection, rather than worry about that ten percent that I might have a problem with. Perfect legislation doesn't exist. But I'm happy with legislation that's 90 percent right on especially if it's going to protect the people.

What would you say to a civil libertarian who argued that we all want to safeguard American lives, but that if you don't draw some legal line then the government is going to tend to use its authority for nefarious purposes?

What I'd say to them is this. I think it's one of our founding fathers who said - I think it might have been Thomas Jefferson, it might have been Abraham Lincoln, I'm not sure - if men were angels, we wouldn't need laws. Men are not angels. I'm okay doing what we need to do to protect this country. And if we see an opportunity where we need to change a law, then let's change it. Because if we try to debate hard and long how we create the perfect law, we could be annihilated by then. Let's pass laws that are 90 percent right on, and then go back and debate whether or not we need to change somethings - rather than waiting until we have a law or legislation that everybody feels is 100 percent.

President Obama has said that he has the authority to assassinate American citizens if he's declared them an enemy combatant in the War on Terror. Al Awlaki is one guy who is on the official government list where he can be taken out. Do you have any thoughts on that? Is it a good policy because it allows us to take out Americans who may have joined Al Qaeda? Or is it a bad policy-

Well first of all, this is the first that I have heard - you're saying it's okay to take out American citizens if he suspects they are terrorist related. Is that what you said?!

Yes, that's what I said.

I've got to be honest with you. I have not heard that. I had not heard that's something that he said. I don't believe that the president of the United States should order the assassination of citizens of the United States. That's why we have our court system, and that's why we have our laws. Even if the person is suspected of being affiliated with terrorism, if they are a citizen of this country, they still deserve the rights of this country, which includes due process. Osama bin Laden was not a citizen of the United States of America. So I would not have changed the decision the president made in that regard. But if you're a citizen, no, it is not right for the president to to think he has the power to have you assassinated. No. He has the power to make sure you're locked up, but you have to go through due process.

What about other people who are locked up? Where should we try terrorists when we capture them? Military tribunals? The court system?

I firmly believe it should be military tribunals. I don't believe we should clog up our court system trying terrorists. They're not citizens of the United States. They are a threat to the United States. I think they should be tried by military tribunals. The process would move a lot faster, and we are much more likely to get the proper judgment against these people who have killed many of our citizens, and who have a desire to kill more of our citizens.

Have you followed the conversation that's been going on in the country about airport security? The new scanning machines and the enhanced pat downs? Do you have any thoughts on that?

I'm a frequent flyer. So yes, I do have some thoughts on that. It does not make good sense to try and pat down a five year old child screaming and hollering that somebody is trying to pat her down. She does not have on heavy armor. The kid didn't even have on a coat. Why are you antagonizing this kid like that? The thing that's missing with respect to security procedures here in this country is common sense.

Last year Janet Napolitano went to Israel to find out how they do it. Why didn't she do that two years ago? One of my guiding principles is, if you want to know the solution to a problem, go to the people closest to the problem. Who has dealt with terrorism and security procedures for decades? Israel. So why did she wait so long before she went to Israel and asked them how do they do it? Currently we don't have any common sense in our security screening procedures.

We've talked about the War on Terror a lot. How about the War on Drugs. What do you think about America's drug policy?

America's drug policy has to start before it can get across our border. We've got to deal differently with drugs coming in from other countries. We've got to deal differently with those elements in this country that facilitate the movement of illegal drugs into this country. I'm not gonna tell you what the answer is. I just know that the decision has to be made as to how do we deal with this problem. If we do not the US is going to become just as lawless as some of these other nations. I believe we can avoid this, but there's a lot of things we need to do.

Do you know what you'd change?

One of my principles is placing the right priorities on the problem. If most of the drugs are coming in through Mexico, let's provide more resources to prevent them from coming in from Mexico. Is the problem reduction of the illegal drugs? Is the problem the transportation? Is the problem the endpoint? Or is the problem the demand here in the United States? You've got to answer those questions first. Then you can decide, what do we need to do in order to mitigate the root cause of the problem? That has not been done.

So what if the root cause is the demand for drugs here in the United States?

If the root cause is demand in the United States, crack down on the laws against illegal drug use. That's what you do.

Is it a state matter or a federal matter? For example, if one state wants to crack down on its drug laws and have stiffer penalties, and another wants to decriminalize use or have medical marijuana, is that a state prerogative? Or should federal law be the guiding force here?

I think it is both, but the state should take the lead in most instances on those issues. There could be some circumstances where it's better for something to be issued as a federal statute. But the best approach, that not withstanding, is for the states to put their solutions on the table. We have very a wasted resource in this country. Why not use the 50 states. Give them the power. Empower them to solve their own problems with respect to immigration and other issues. And we can learn from them. 

Are there any issues that you think should be a bigger in this campaign? That you haven't been asked about or that the other candidates haven't been addressing?

Nope. My big issues are, we have become a nation of crises. We have a moral crisis, an economic crisis, an energy crisis, an entitlement spending crisis, an immigration crisis, a foggy foreign policy crisis, and a deficiency of leadership crisis. Those crises show that we need a different type of change.

I'm a problem solver, not a politician. This country needs a leader, not a reader. This country needs someone who has had hands on experience creating jobs. I have that experience. I want people to take a look at me, and not just look at the color of my skin, how well I speak - I want them to look at the content of my ideals. That's what's gonna turn this country around. The content of a person's ideals. the only way people are going to find out what that is? Go to my Web site, and click on common sense solutions. The other thing I want people to know about me is that it's not about us, the grown folks. It's about the children and the grandchildren.

Thanks for the interview. I've enjoyed it.

Image credit: Reuters 


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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