Posts Tagged ‘Obama death warrants’

Presidential death warrants and U.S. citizens

March 6, 2013

The White House has so far refused to give a straight answer to the question of whether the President claims to have authority to kill Americans on American soil based on his sole determination.

The police and the military have not only a right but a duty to use lethal force to protect human life.  Police have the right to use lethal force to take someone into custody who is charged with committing a crime or of whom there is probable cause to believe committed a crime.  If Americans wage war against their government, as in the Civil War, the government has the right to use lethal force to defeat them.

usassassinBut in all these examples, the use of lethal force is limited to the specific situation.  The question is whether the President has an open-ended right to issue a death warrant against someone not engaging in an act of terrorism, not charged with a crime, not resisting arrest, not bearing arms against U.S. forces, but whom the President has determined is a threat to national security.

As it happens, I don’t think the President should have unlimited authority to order the killing of foreigners or people living in foreign countries, either.  But Obama administration’s response to the question about Americans on American soil shows how foolish it is to imagine that it is possible to grant a ruler absolute power and think it always will be used against somebody else.

So far as I can tell, the Obama administration has never acknowledged any legal restriction on the President’s power whatsoever.   I think this is a greater long-range threat to American freedom than anything our foreign enemies are doing.  You can be sure that whatever power is claimed by President Obama will be claimed by his successors, on whichever party.

I think Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky deserves great credit for pressing this question.   It is an example of how some Republicans libertarians, conservatives and even Tea Partiers are more principled defenders of liberty than many of us liberals.

[Update 3/7/13]  Attorney General Eric Holder sent Rand Paul a letter saying that the President does not have authority to use weaponized drones against American citizens not engaged in combat on American soil.  Click on Eric Holder answers Ron Paul (sort of) for my follow-up post.


Could Obama order a hit on Julian Assange?

March 6, 2013

The Obama administration has refused to give a clear answer on whether the President claims authority to order the killing of an American citizen on American soil, based on the President’s sole determination that the person is a threat.

black_and_white_usa_censorship_julian_assange_desktop_1680x1050_wallpaper-1000432I have a different question.   Does President Obama believe he has the authority to order the killing of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks?  Assange has never participated in an act of violence against Americans, and never has advocated violence against Americans.  Yet Assange is accused of being a threat to American national security because he has provided a means of publishing secret information that is damaging to the U.S. government’s reputation.

I do think Julian Assange is safer in the Ecuadorian embassy in London than he would be anywhere else.   It isn’t paranoid to think that, if he were free to move about, he might be found dead some morning in a hotel room or along a lonely country road.   My guess is that he will be in the Ecuadorian embassy for a longl— just like Cardinal Mindszenty, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on trumped-up charges by the Communist government of Hungary during the Cold War era, and found asylum for 15 years in the U.S. embassy in Budapest.

But my question is not about President Obama’s intentions.  My question is what limits, if any, exist in his eyes to his power to issue death warrants.

Current history quiz for Obama voters

March 2, 2013


Answers (with links) are below.


Missing the point on drone killings

February 25, 2013
G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

He had … … the trick of dismissing the important part of a question as if it could wait, and appearing to get to business on the unimportant part of it.  Thus, he would say, “Whatever we may think of the rights and wrongs of the vivisection of pauper children, we shall all agree that it should only be done, in any event, by fully qualified practitioners.”

==G.K. Chesterton, The Flying Inn

I heard a version of this kind of argument the other day when I was talking about drone killings to an Obamaphile friend of mine.  My friend, whom I regard as both an intelligent person and a decent human being, argued that for President Obama to order the killing of people by precision flying drones is better than the alternative.  The people in the target areas are better off, he said, than if the United States was dropping napalm and cluster bombs or invading with troops.

Considered as a technology, flying killer drones are of course no worse than other weapons technologies, except they allow the illusion that killing is easy, safe and without consequences.  The question is whether in a supposedly free country, the President should have the power to draw up death warrants and order killings at his sole discretion, like Yuri Andropov in the days of the old Soviet Union.

V.I. Lenin once wrote:  The scientific definition of dictatorship means nothing less but this: power without limit, resting directly on force, restrained by no laws, absolutely unrestricted by rules.   If a head of state has the authority to sign death warrants as his sole discretion, what does he lack to fit Lenin’s definition?  If this is accepted, not only President Obama, but every President for the foreseeable future, will lack nothing to exercise the power of a dictator.

Obama’s rationale to sign death warrants

February 6, 2013

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.


President Obama executes a death warrant

September 30, 2011

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.  No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

==U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 3

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentiment or indictment of a Grand Jury … … nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.

==U.S. Constitution, Amendment V

President Barack Obama at the beginning of last year said he had signed a list of death warrants for people he considered to be enemies of the United States, including an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric in Yemen.

Al-Awlaki is said to have an operational role in al-Qaeda.  If this is true, he is guilty of treason, for which the penalty can be death.  But he was never charged with treason, or anything else.  An indictment would have given him a chance to turn himself in, and defend himself in open court.

It is very possible he was a guilty of something serious, but there is no way to know for sure because President Obama has taken on the role of judge, jury and executioner.

I don’t think I am using excessive language when I say this precedent is more dangerous to American freedom than anything Anwar al-Awlaki could have done as an al-Qaeda supporter.

If Presidential death warrants and assassinations come to be accepted as legal, there is no reason to think they will be limited to radical Muslims.   All kinds of people have been accused of terrorism—religious cults, right-wing militias, animal rights advocates, environmental activists, war protestors.

Conservative Republicans who think universal health care or financial regulation represent dangerous concentrations of federal power ought to consider whether giving the President the right to assassinate at will is a dangerous power.

Liberal Democrats who think President Obama can be trusted with this power ought to consider whether President Rick Perry, President Mitt Romney or President Michelle Bachman can be trusted with this power.

Click on The due-process-free assassination of American citizens is now a reality for Glenn Greenwald’s excellent summing up.

Click on A dark day for the Constitution: American killed by drone strike for comment on The American Conservative web log.

Click on Al-Awlaqi Should Have Been Tried In Abstentia for Prof. Juan Cole’s suggestion. [Added 10/1/11]