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.