This Isn't Hard, Mr. President: Do You Think You Can Kill Us on American Soil or Not?

The White House won't say whether it thinks Barack Obama is so empowered.

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Does President Obama think that he has the power to kill American citizens on U.S. soil? If he accuses a guy in the Arizona desert or rural Montana of being an Al Qaeda terrorist, is it ever kosher to send a drone over to blow him up, as was done to Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen killed in Yemen? Or is it never okay to drone strike an American citizen to death here in the United States?

It's an easy question.

Answering it wouldn't jeopardize national security in any way.

So why do Obama Administration officials keep dodging it?

Asked the question in a Google Plus interview Thursday, Obama himself said, "Well first of all, there has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil." Duh. But will there ever be? He went on to say that it's easier to capture accused terrorists in the United States than abroad.

But he still didn't give a straight answer.

Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan won't answer either, despite Senator Rand Paul's repeated inquiries and vow that he'll try to block Brennan's confirmation as CIA director until he gets a response. Here's how Paul phrased the question: "Do you believe that the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil?"

He added, "What about the use of lethal force against a non-U.S. person on U.S. soil?"

He's been after these answers awhile, so it's no surprise that he's also produced variations on the question:

Do you believe that the prohibition on CIA participation in domestic law enforcement, first established by the National Security Act of 1947, would apply to the use of lethal force, especially lethal force directed at an individual on a targeting list, if a U.S. citizen on a targeting list was found to be operating on U.S. soil? What if the individual on the targeting list was a non-U.S. person but found to be operating on U.S. soil? Do you consider such an operation to be domestic law enforcement, or would it only be subject to the president's wartime powers?

I can't think of any reason why the Obama Administration would keep dodging this question save one: It believes that, under certain circumstances, perhaps spelled out in a secret legal memo, it is empowered to kill American citizens or non-citizens with drones inside the United States. 

And it knows the citizenry would be alarmed by that belief. 

Americans know enough about what sometimes happens to innocents when Hellfire missiles explode to want their use restricted to foreign lands where victims can be put in the mental bucket "not like us." Paul, Senator Ron Wyden, and others are right to keep pressing for an answer. They should have more company. When sex scandals occur, the Washington, D.C., media whips itself into a frenzy getting answers to questions like, "Congressman, is that a picture of your penis in the tweet?" They don't rest until they get answers!

"Do you think you can kill Americans on U.S. soil?" would seem to be a more important question.

Anyone want to join me in a media frenzy for answers? If Paul tattoos the question on his butt and tweets out a picture, would that help?

(The terrible truth is that, yes, that would totally help.)

Presented by

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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