Saturday, October 8, 2011

How a Secret U.S. Memo Made the Legal Case to Kill an American Citizen

To their credit, the NY Times lays out and confronts pretty directly the threat to civil liberties that was implicit in Obama's decision to assasinate Anwar al-Awlaki without trial.

The memo, written last year, followed months of extensive interagency deliberations and offers a glimpse into the legal debate that led to one of the most significant decisions made by President Obama — to move ahead with the killing of an American citizen without a trial.

The secret document provided the justification for acting despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, protections in the Bill of Rights and various strictures of the international laws of war, according to people familiar with the analysis. The memo, however, was narrowly drawn to the specifics of Mr. Awlaki’s case and did not establish a broad new legal doctrine to permit the targeted killing of any Americans believed to pose a terrorist threat.

The Obama administration has refused to acknowledge or discuss its role in the drone strike that killed Mr. Awlaki last month and that technically remains a covert operation. The government has also resistedgrowing calls that it provide a detailed public explanation of why officials deemed it lawful to kill an American citizen, setting a precedent that scholars, rights activists and others say has raised concerns about the rule of law and civil liberties.

The article goes on to provide the administration's various justifications for asserting that Awlaki could be, as it were, legally exempted from the various rights and protections normally accorded an American citizen under the Constitution.

It will, of course, be very interesting to see how this plays out for Obama in the upcoming election season.  Will his liberal progressive base see this as one more reason to back away from the man who had been their great hope for America's future?  Can a Republican leadership that tends to line up on the side of public security outweighing individual liberties in the quest for "victory" in the "war on terror" still find a way to tar Obama with the label of hypocrite (as Dick Cheney has done) for a decision that, some will argue, was made on grounds as legally expedient as those conjured by the Bush-Cheney bunch to permit torture and waterboarding?

We all knew that the upcoming election campaigns were going to be vicious and messy.  The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki under such a dubious legal pretext means that the messiness has been amped up a notch or two.

But more important, when our government can move from secret drone warfare to eliminate Taliban militants (along with untold civilian "collateral damage" to the use of such methods to assassinate US citizens, we've all been moved farther down a slippery, and exceedingly dangerous, slope.

Again, to channel the words of the current orchestrator of that drone warfare, CIA chief David Petraeus, tell me how this ends.


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