The Secret Committee That Drafts Obama's Kill Lists

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As outlined to Reuters by anonymous administration officials, it appears to violate the Constitution and defy common sense

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Am I alone in finding this Reuters story chilling? "American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions," Mark Hosenball reports. "There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate." Where does President Obama fit into the picture? "The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process."

Though President Obama was a constitutional law professor, I wonder if it has escaped his attention that the Founders anticipated the problem of a United States citizen betraying his country and set forth transparent procedures for addressing such acts. "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," the Constitution states. "No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court." It goes on to declare that "the Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason."

Under Obama, the executive branch is setting the penalty for treason. It isn't bothering to convict the accused. And alleged guilt is established through an opaque process that it won't even discuss. There is no indication that witnesses are being called to testify to the same overt act, and the accused are most certainly not confessing in open court. In other words, the actions of the Obama administration are straightforwardly unconstitutional, and those involved in the process are violating the oath that they took to protect and defend our founding document.

Another interesting bit in the Reuters story, attributed to anonymous government sources: "Several officials said that when Awlaki became the first American put on the target list, Obama was not required personally to approve the targeting of a person. But one official said Obama would be notified of the principals' decision." Another way to put this is that American citizens can find themselves on an assassination list without anyone accountable to voters having been involved in the process, let alone review by folks from other branches of government as a check against abuses. We're apparently even more cavalier about targeting and killing individual foreigners. "When the name of a foreign, rather than American, militant is added to targeting lists, the decision is made within the intelligence community and normally does not require approval by high-level NSC officials," the story states. But don't worry. It isn't as if the CIA has ever abused the power to assassinate, provoking a horrified backlash from a past Congress.

It bears repeating that in the criminal justice system, where defendants are guaranteed access to counsel, a right to due process, and release if there is even reasonable doubt of their innocence, the system mistakenly punishes innocents all the time, sending them to jail for years on end, or even executing them. The notion that bureaucrats operating in secret, accountable to no one, won't make mistakes that could be prevented were due process afforded is fantastical. The Obama partisans who insist that the object of their adoration would never abuse this power are at best allowing their affection for the president to blind them to the precedent he is setting, and the fact that all subsequent administrations will claim the same power.

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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