Actual Death Panels in the Obama Administration

In my latest piece at The Daily Beast, I excoriate the Obama Administration for its contention that it possesses the power to kill American citizens if they are determined by unknown persons in the executive branch to be imminent threats to the United States or its interests. The whole piece can be found here, and it includes links to pieces by Dana Priest, Eli Lake, and Glenn Greenwald, three talented journalists to whom I’m indebted on this story.

Frankly, I am flabbergasted that the practice is as uncontroversial as it seems to be. Over the weekend, I Tweeted back and forth on the subject with Jon Henke, a razor sharp libertarian whose thinking and writing I am always eager to consume. He argued that this is an inherently difficult subject because there are a lot of “problems, subjective judgments and gray areas” at play. I agree to a point. Obviously I don’t think that an American citizen squaring off against the United States Marines on a battlefield need be arrested. So does a heavily armed terrorist cell holed up in a Baghdad apartment occupy a war zone? What if they’re holed up in a Hamburg apartment? An apartment in Charleston, South Carolina?

But I cannot believe that blurring lines makes it constitutionally permissible to assassinate citizens who aren’t on a battlefield, or sitting armed in an apartment that serves as the equivalent.

As Mr. Greenwald puts it:

The people on this “hit list” are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities. More critically still, the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — defines the “battlefield” as the entire world. So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks. That’s quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.

In my piece in The Daily Beast, I argue the following: “That this power helps us to eliminate a few dangerous men in the short term hardly justifies the imprudent folly of indulging an unchecked power so extreme it can only end in corruption.” I stand by this position. How many Americans can there possibly be who are a) terrorists who pose an imminent threat; b) impervious to being captured alive; c) capable of being killed.

But even if you believe that our situation is so dire that American citizens must be killed without having been charged, tried and convicted of anything, shouldn’t you at the very least want this extraordinary, unprecedented power checked by someone in another branch of government? What is the counterargument against that added safety? If these killings are actually free from abuses, surely the president possesses ample evidence that the person targeted actually is a terrorist who poses a grave threat. Is it too much to ask that a three judge panel agrees? And that Congress reviews all killings periodically? Shouldn’t the folks at The Claremont Institute, who champion the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, be arguing that those men would’ve made sure to build checks against such a significant power into other branches of the government?

The balance of my piece is here. As always, I’m eager to hear critiques, and especially curious to hear the argument against oversight from those who insist that this is a necessary practice. Takeaway lesson: no one who rises to the presidency can be trusted to limit himself to powers afforded his office by the Constitution properly understood.

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3 Responses to “Actual Death Panels in the Obama Administration”

  1. Tweets that mention Actual Death Panels in the Obama Administration - Conor Friedersdorf - Metablog - True/Slant -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. exitstan Says:

    On the surface, it makes sense. But beneath, lies insanity.

    Americans — and in particular, government officials — have proven that they cannot figure out who is, and is not, a terrorist. Evidence: most of them will not even acknowledge that their own country is teeming with native born terrorists.

    A commonly used definition of “terrorist” is thus: “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”. If the US military’s killing of millions of Vietnamese — people who were actually defending their country — was not terrorism, what is? If the US military’s funding and training of death-squads in Central America was not terrorism, what is? If the US voters’ continuing endorsement of the formal military alliance with Israel, which facilitates an unlimited flow of US weaponry, cash, and political cover in support of Israel’s wars of collective punishment against Lebanese and Palestinians, is not direct involvement in terrorism, what is? Oh, I almost forgot… what about the conservatively estimated 70% of the oh-so-innocent American population who enthusiastically endorsed the offensive military invasion of Iraq, which was run by a known enemy of the gang that attacked NYC and the Pentagon. If that was not [really, really dumb] terrorism, what is?

    Americans’ fear of their own shadow and their predilection for offensive military adventures have needlessly sucked dry their financial future, bankrupted their souls, and generated enemies they cannot handle. Now, an official announcement has been made to up the stakes for dissenters, particularly those living outside the fatherland, who in many Americans’ opinion, are enemies just because they find other countries more attractive than the US.

    Big deal… being murdered with one’s hard-earned self-respect and critical faculties intact is far more attractive than living in fear of chronic pants wetters.

  3. Michael Roston Says:

    Conor, whether or not it’s a good idea, I would argue that the legal basis for the President to assassinate terrorist foes of the United States of America, whether US citizens or not, is fairly well established. In the (sadly) memorable phrasing of former House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, the September 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force intended to ‘clear away legal underbrush’ that hamstrung the executive branch’s ability to act without oversight by the other branches of government.

    The irony here is that while I agree with the courts that the AUMF did not grant the executive branch the power to wiretap Americans or indefinitely detain suspected terrorists, it was drawn up with an eye not only toward invading Afghanistan, but precisely for the purpose of using lethal force against members of al Qaida. Including those who might be US citizens.

    I’m all for revision of the AUMF. We’re past due the time that the hundreds of Members of Congress who gave presidents this expansive writ of power take responsibility for their earlier action and acknowledge that the terror war they authorized in September 2001 is not the same war we’re fighting in 2010.

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