Entrusting the Kill List to 'High-Level Officials' Sets a Reckless Precedent

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Obama fans should think about who it would've empowered in the last administration -- and who it might empower in the next.

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In yesterday's item on the Obama Administration memo that asserts broad latitude to extra-judicially kill Americans, I noted the assertion that the U.S. would be able to use lethal force against a citizen when, among other conditions, "an informed, high-level official... has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States."

Rather than repeat arguments about the Orwellian redefinition of what constitutes an "imminent threat," I want to focus today on the part about vesting the power to secretly kill in high-level officials. The memo isn't just saying that the president himself possesses the power to declare someone an Al Qaeda operative who'll be killed. The claim is that others high up in the executive branch can do so too. The memo doesn't even seem to require informing the president.

In the Obama White House, CIA nominee John Brennan is the figure known to oversee the drone kill list. Hopefully he'll be asked about it at his confirmation hearings. Meanwhile, I thought it would be instructive, for Touré especially, to think through what sorts of people might ascend to "high-level officialdom" with influence in counterterrorism, and the quality of their judgment.

Here are some of the people who might've qualified in the last administration:

  • Dick Cheney
  • John Ashcroft
  • Donald Rumsfeld
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • Alberto Gonzales
  • Michael Chertoff
  • David Addington

It's hard to say who will be a "high-level official" starting in 2017. Maybe Marco Rubio will win, and John Bolton can be the guy who issues death sentences within the executive branch. Why worry? All the folks I've mentioned succeeded in persuading a duly elected president that they possessed the judgment to be vested with extraordinary responsibilities, and look what happened.

What could go wrong?

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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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