In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
I thought of that passage while reading through this white paper (brought to us by the dutiful reporting of Mike Isikoff), which lays out when, precisely, the administration believes it is entitled to order a drone strike against an American citizen. (Read the full memo at the bottom of this post.) The answer falls short of "whenever we want," but it skirts damn close:
A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be "senior operational leaders" of al-Qaida or "an associated force" -- even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.
The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration's most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects abroad, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.
All of this is done in secret, a prospect which Adam Serwer rightly finds chilling:
The Obama administration claims that the secret judgment of a single "well-informed high level administration official" meets the demands of due process and is sufficient justification to kill an American citizen suspected of working with terrorists. That procedure is entirely secret. Thus it's impossible to know which rules the administration has established to protect due process and to determine how closely those rules are followed. The government needs the approval of a judge to detain a suspected terrorist. To kill one, it need only give itself permission.
I highly advise you to read the memo. The powers it claims are broad and, as Isikoff pointed out on Rachel Maddow's show, actually contradict some of the administration's public statements and enter into Orwell's world of false language rendered to conceal an arguments "too brutal for most people to take."
Consider the notion of "imminence." Last year Eric Holder claimed that a lethal strike against an American citizen can only be made if to protect against "an imminent threat of violent attack." But the white paper states that imminence "does not require that the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons or interests will take place in the significant future." Effectively, the word "imminence" has no meaning beyond "we think you're a bad guy."
The white paper further claims that it can carry out operations "with the consent of the host nation's government," and then moves on to declare that such operations would still be lawful "after a determination that the host nation is unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual targeted." In other words, we will ask your consent, but we don't really need it.
This kind of language -- imminence that isn't, consent at gun-point -- runs throughout the white paper. It authorizes, for instance, not just the killing of Al Qaeda leaders, but of any "an associated force." Who determines what constitutes "an associated force?" The same people ordering the killing.
I don't want to be thick-witted here. I understand that on some level a democracy generally elects human leaders who will not abuse the spirit of the law. I think Barack Obama is such a leader. That is for the historians to determine. But practically, much of our foreign policy now depends on the hope of benevolent dictators and philosopher kings. The law can't help. The law is what the kings say it is.