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?

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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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