Obama’s rationale to sign death warrants

Michael Isikoff of NBC News revealed a secret Justice Department memo giving the legal rationale for targeted killings.   Here are the highlights of his report.

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

kill-listInstead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

… … The confidential memo lays out a three-part test that would make targeted killings of American lawful: In addition to the suspect being an imminent threat, capture of the target must be “infeasible, and the strike must be conducted according to “law of war principles.” … The memo … … states that U.S. officials may consider whether an attempted capture of a suspect would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel involved in such an operation. If so, U.S. officials could determine that the capture operation of the targeted American would not be feasible, making it lawful for the U.S. government to order a killing instead, the memo concludes.

… … “A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” the white paper reads. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.”

This on the surface sounds plausible.  If some al Qaeda operative was plotting another attack on the United States, Americans would want him stopped.  But if you read the document like a lawyer, you see the powers claimed for President Obama go far beyond that.  The memo said that the government is entitled to kill anyone that a senior government official determines is a terrorist, without having to reveal before or after the fact the basis for deciding the person is a terrorist.

When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, and John F. Kerry ran for President in 2004, they denounced President George W. Bush’s administration for claiming the power to arrest and torture people at their sole discretion.  What greater power could a dictator have than that?  Now the Obama administration is claiming the same authority to kill.   This is a greater danger to American freedom and democracy than al Qaeda.

Click on Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans for the full NBC News report.

Click on Justice Department White Paper PDF to read the text of the 16-page memo.

Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf both cut through the legal obfuscation to explain what the memo really said.

Click on Chilling Legal Memo from Obama DOJ for Glenn Greenwald’s analysis

Click on Obama’s Memo on Killing Americans for Conor Friedersdorf’s analysis.

Click on This Isn’t the Memo You’re Looking For for what we the public still don’t know about the Obama administration’s death warrant policy.

Here’s more from Conor Friedersdorf.

The memo isn’t just saying that the president himself possesses the power to declare someone an Al Qaeda operative who’ll be killed. The claim is that others high up in the executive branch can do so too. The memo doesn’t even seem to require informing the president.

In the Obama White House, CIA nominee John Brennan is the figure known to oversee the drone kill list. Hopefully he’ll be asked about it at his confirmation hearings. Meanwhile, I thought it would be instructive … to think through what sorts of people might ascend to “high level officialdom” with influence in counterterrorism, and the quality of their judgment.

Here are some of the people who might’ve qualified in the last administration:

Dick Cheney

John Ashcroft

Donald Rumsfeld

Condoleezza Rice

Alberto Gonzalez

Michael Chertoff

David Addington

It’s hard to say who’ll be a “high-level official” starting in 2017. Maybe Marco Rubio will win, and John Bolton can be the guy who issues death sentences within the executive branch. Why worry? All the folks I’ve mentioned succeeded in persuading a duly elected president that they possessed the judgment to be vested with extraordinary responsibilities, and look what happened.

What could go wrong?

Click on Entrusting the Kill List to ‘High-Level Officials’ for Friedersdorf’s full comment.

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One Response to “Obama’s rationale to sign death warrants”

  1. How To Avoid Being Assassinated By Your President « YouViewed/Editorial Says:

    […] Obama’s rationale to sign death warrants (philebersole.wordpress.com) […]


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