U.S. Policy for Assassination of Americans Sparks Outrage

The White House continues a policy of killing alleged American terrorists without due process

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A 1981 executive order signed by President Reagan explicitly bans assassination by the U.S. government. So it caused considerable controversy when, in 2002, President Bush articulated a policy, as part of what he called the "global war on terror," allowing the CIA to assassinate not just terrorists but Americans involved in terrorism. That controversy is repeating this week: Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told Congress that the government can target Americans it believes to be terrorists. Blair said criteria includes "whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans."

Commentators are furious at the admission, citing the illegality of assassination as well as the policy's total disregard for due process. Given that many of these pundits are liberal, some are especially outraged that President Obama would continue what they see as one of the Bush administration's most pernicious policies.

  • So Much For Due Process Spencer Ackerman examines the implications: "The so-called assassinations ban isn't ironclad, but still, this appears to be a fairly low standard for killing an American citizen." He later scoffed, "There's A Secret Part Of The Constitution Where The Government Gets To Assassinate You If It Thinks You're Dangerous [...] I missed the Constitutional amendment where there's this due-process opt-out."
  • Why Not Even Indict Them First? Marcy Wheeler is puzzled. "We have been focusing all of our powers of telecom surveillance on Anwar al-Awlaki for at least a year (and probably far longer). Our government has tracked not only what he has said on jihadist websites, but also knows precisely what he has been emailing and presumably saying on the phone," she writes. "[A]ll of the speech al-Awlaki has engaged in for the last decade was not deemed worthy of even a criminal indictment. Yet all of a sudden, it got al-Awlaki on the kill list."
  • Obama Forbids Torture But Allows This? National Review's Daniel Foster asks, if the White House supports assassinating American terrorists, shouldn't torturing foreign terrorists be less objectionable? "The point is that, if there are circumstances in which it is permissible for a government to kill American citizens for plotting acts of war against the United States, then surely there must be circumstances in which it is permissible to do a number of things short of killing them."
  • No Checks to Stop Him Mother Jones's Nick Baumann sighs at "more confirmation that the Obama administration believes it has the power to unilaterally order the assassination of Americans who it suspects are terrorists." He writes, "There don't seem to be any non-executive branch checks on this power."
But even if you're someone who does want the President to have the power to order American citizens killed without a trial by decreeing that they are Terrorists (and it's worth remembering that if you advocate that power, it's going to be vested in all Presidents, not just the ones who are as Nice, Good, Kind-Hearted and Trustworthy as Barack Obama), shouldn't there at least be some judicial approval required?
  • How to Make It Semi-Legal Greenwald proposes a compromise. He doesn't like it, but it's something:
It would be perverse in the extreme, but wouldn't it be preferable to at least require the President to demonstrate to a court that probable cause exists to warrant the assassination of an American citizen before the President should be allowed to order it? That would basically mean that courts would issue "assassination warrants" or "murder warrants" -- a repugnant idea given that they're tantamount to imposing the death sentence without a trial -- but isn't that minimal safeguard preferable to allowing the President unchecked authority to do it on his own, the very power he has now claimed for himself?
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