A Ray of Sunlight on Obama's Extrajudicial Killings

One of several memos used to justify the drone execution of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki has finally been released.
Reuters

On Monday, a federal appeals court released a memo on the extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. The public should have seen this memo long ago. The Obama administration suppressed it even after publicly invoking its logic; killing its subject in a drone strike; citing it to justify the legality of the killing; and appointing its author, David Barron, to a lifetime seat on a federal appeals court.

Why was it suppressed? If you read the redacted memo, you'll see that nothing released Monday threatens national security or hurts America's ability to wage the war on terrorism. As the debate about the legal standards set forth in the memo intensify, let's not forget what finally seeing this document makes clear: The Obama administration needlessly and illegitimately hid it from us for years. And this is just the latest evidence that Team Obama abuses its classification power.

Nor should anyone harbor the illusion that the public now fully understands the legal rationale used by the Obama administration to justify the secret killings of Americans. There are an unknown number of additional legal memos that the ACLU is still fighting to see—and it isn't clear that all of the redactions in the just-released memo are legitimate. Among other things, Americans are still deprived of the evidence Obama used to determine that al-Awlaki was in fact a terrorist, that he posed an "imminent" threat, and that he couldn't be captured. One need only reflect on the number of times the federal government has unjustly consigned innocent men to decades in prison to see the importance of subjecting evidence of this sort to the rigorous review that's impossible without disclosure.*

The memo makes many contested claims that will be analyzed by legal experts who are better able than I am to identify and explain potentially problematic precedents. On first read, I am nevertheless struck by how few words are spent defending extrajudicial killing against constitutional, as opposed to statutory, objections. After all, the Fifth Amendment is emphatic: "No person shall... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Citing Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Mathews v. Eldridge, the memo argues that the Fifth Amendment prohibition on killing without due process is subject to a "balancing test" that weighs the right not to be extrajudicially killed against the government's interests and whatever burdens it would face in extending due process.

That itself is a potentially dangerous precedent.

The memo continues: "We believe similar reasoning supports the constitutionality of the contemplated operations here. As explained above, on the facts represented to us, a decision-maker could reasonably decide that the threat posed by al-Aulaqi's activities to United States persons is 'continued' and 'imminent.'"

This passage is alarming for two reasons:

1) It asserts that the executive branch can kill Americans in secret under the standard, "a decision-maker could reasonably decide ..." Dick Cheney was "a decision-maker." So was J. Edgar Hoover. Are we prepared to accept that Fifth Amendment protections are null based on a relativistic standard as interpreted in secret by men like them?

2) The memo treats the representation that al-Awlaki posed an "imminent" threat as important. But unless it is hidden in a redaction, the memo does not address how "imminent" is defined, and there is good reason to believe that the Obama administration has defined it so dubiously as to render the term meaningless. I explored this problem at greater length back on February 5, 2013, when Michael Isikoff published another memo that dealt with extrajudicial killings. It set, as a precondition of such killings, "an imminent threat of violent attack."

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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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