Posted by rflacks on:
Last week the New York Times published a remarkable piece. It was headlined:
Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.
The story by reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane reveals a very dark and dangerous side to the Obama presidency. It makes clear that President Obama personally targets individuals to be killed by drone strikes. His decisions are based on his own personal judgment of whether the potential target fits criteria (the nature of which is secret) that would warrant their execution. These targets are not
located in the zones of combat where US military are engaged but in Pakistan,
Yemen and Somalia. The targets are allegedly associated with Al Qaeda. We learn
from the story that the targeting process has gradually extended from
individually named persons, to wider human clusters believed to be warranted
for so-called ‘signature’ attacks. Some of those killed were US citizens.
President Obama, according to the story,
initially undertook this personal role to try to make sure that civilian deaths
would be minimized, but soon learned how to loosen targeting criteria so that
many deaths of unknown males would not be counted as potentially civilian.
Indeed, the story suggests that the targeting process has gradually widened to
include as targets that earlier might have been avoided. Apparently, the
administration believes that the program has substantially weakened Al Qaeda,
while avoiding the costs in US lives and resources that would be entailed by
efforts to detain these suspected terrorists.
The revelations mark a significant qualitative
assumption of power by this president over human life that goes beyond any
previously known. Since the A-Bomb was created, presidents have of course had
the power to annihilate the human race (and in that event annihilate the whole
human story!). This god-like power, however, is not supposed ever to be
actually used but to serve as a deterrent threat to enemies—and it is balanced
by the similar powers available to other rulers possessing the bomb. The Presidential drone kill list provides the president with the ready at hand ability to
personally direct the killing of persons based on the president’s personal
judgment. No check, no due process—no constraint other than the legitimacy of
the president himself.
The article indicates that the president
assumed this power not only because of its obvious benefit in defeating terrorists,
but for a creditable moral reason. His reading of Augustine and Thomas-Aquinas—of ‘just war’ theory—persuaded him that he morally had to take personal
responsibility for this kill program and had to try to ensure that it met the
standards of just war doctrine. But the details of the story makes one feel
that Obama is kidding himself if he thinks that this perspective provides moral
sanction for what he is doing.
He claims legal warrant for his actions, but
the documentation of this is secret. He
campaigned as one who would reverse the Bush claims for executive power—claims that
were used to justify Guantanamo, indefinite detention, rendition and military
trials of terrorism suspects. But the article makes it clear that all of these
have been retained by this administration. Indeed, it indicates that he engaged
the attorney general in conversations designed to find the legal loopholes that
would justify continuing these policies. And the article further indicates that
some of the kill program has been carried out over the objections of the State
Department and the American ambassador in Pakistan.
But beyond the immediate moral confusion is
the precedent Obama’s program sets for the rest of the world and the rest of
time. It seems to provide authority for
the idea that the democratically elected head of a constitutional state can
assume the sole authority to secretly execute anyone he regards as a
justifiable target. And at the same time it invests in the development of
technologies for deepest possible surveillance and reliable murder—technologies
easily diffused throughout the world for all kinds of uses that we can imagine.
Will this be Barack Obama’s historical legacy?
I’m writing this not, as some misguided
progressives argue, to claim that Obama should no longer be supported at
election time. I’m very certain that his defeat might well mark the end of
political hope. But it’s imperative that, if we’re concerned about human
rights, and about the survival of democracy, we try to formulate a strategy to
control the droning before it’s too late.
I don’t know what that strategy might turn
out to require. But some immediate things we need to try to make happen:
+Push members of congress to take leadership
in defense of the bill of rights, due process and related values. A bill of
rights caucus might be a good early step—and a valuable thing would be
congressional hearings on the kill program, the social impact of drone
technology and related matters. After Watergate, Senate hearings on the role of US intelligence agencies were a
landmark in getting some control over the FBI and the CIA. Senator Feinstein has taken the lead in proposing a law to prevent detention without due process. Can this move on her part set an example for similar initiatives?
+This story is one of many recent indications
that the Holder Justice Department is not serving the country or the president
well. IT has quite consistently supported or encouraged the shredding of the
bill of rights in relation to the ‘war on terror’. It has apparently been a key
element in encouraging the militarization of police response to street protests
in our cities. It has embarked on foolish failed prosecutions such as the John Edwards fiasco, but has failed so far to deal with the criminality in the banking and
financial sector, even after the appointment of Eric Schneiderman to beef up
this effort. I’m hooping that with respect to voter suppression in this year’s
election DoJ will be a powerful force for maintaining voting rights. But that
crucial effort shouldn’t be seen as a trade-off for not protecting rights in
+There has to be a growing public awareness
and discussion about all the above, carried on in such a way that the President
is forced to be accountable for his extra-constitutional activity. Ultimately,
we need to dismantle the Imperial Presidency, because any occupant of the
imperial office will, we now know strive to expand his capacity for
surveillance, control and killing. Obama is the latest of the long line of ‘liberal’
presidents who have done such striving. Wilson jailed and deported thousands who
questioned his war policy. FDR imprisoned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans
without due process. Truman instituted a Loyalty program that investigated
millions of federal employees. JFK agreed to the deep surveillance of Martin
Luther King. LBJ authorized the FB’I counter intelligence program that
constructed lists of thousands of young activists targeted for preventive
detention in case of national emergency. How can we break the imperial chain?