Tags: Abdulrahman, aclu, anwar awlaki, assassination, constituion, Criminal Justice, democracy, doj, drone missiles, due process, eric holder, extrajudicial killings, glenn greenwald, global battlefield, john brennan, obama hit list, presidential assassination, roger hollander, samir khan, terrorism, war on terror
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The president’s partisan lawyers purport to vest him with the most extreme power a political leader can seize
The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice. In September 2011, it killed US citizen Anwar Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, along with US citizen Samir Khan, and then, in circumstances that are still unexplained, two weeks later killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman with a separate drone strike in Yemen.
Since then, senior Obama officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and John Brennan, Obama’s top terrorism adviser and his current nominee to lead the CIA, have explicitly argued that the president is and should be vested with this power. Meanwhile, a Washington Post article from October reported that the administration is formally institutionalizing this president’s power to decide who dies under the Orwellian title “disposition matrix”.
When the New York Times back in April, 2010 first confirmed the existence of Obama’s hit list, it made clear just what an extremist power this is, noting: “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” The NYT quoted a Bush intelligence official as saying “he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president”. When the existence of Obama’s hit list was first reported several months earlier by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, she wrote that the “list includes three Americans”.
What has made these actions all the more radical is the absolute secrecy with which Obama has draped all of this. Not only is the entire process carried out solely within the Executive branch – with no checks or oversight of any kind – but there is zero transparency and zero accountability. The president’s underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president – at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as “Terror Tuesday” – then chooses from “baseball cards” and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.
In fact, The Most Transparent Administration Ever™ has been so fixated on secrecy that they have refused even to disclose the legal memoranda prepared by Obama lawyers setting forth their legal rationale for why the president has this power. During the Bush years, when Bush refused to disclose the memoranda from his Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that legally authorized torture, rendition, warrantless eavesdropping and the like, leading Democratic lawyers such as Dawn Johnsen (Obama’s first choice to lead the OLC) vehemently denounced this practice as a grave threat, warning that “the Bush Administration’s excessive reliance on ‘secret law’ threatens the effective functioning of American democracy” and “the withholding from Congress and the public of legal interpretations by the [OLC] upsets the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government.”
But when it comes to Obama’s assassination power, this is exactly what his administration has done. It has repeatedly refused to disclose the principal legal memoranda prepared by Obama OLC lawyers that justified his kill list. It is, right now, vigorously resisting lawsuits from the New York Times and the ACLU to obtain that OLC memorandum. In sum, Obama not only claims he has the power to order US citizens killed with no transparency, but that even the documents explaining the legal rationale for this power are to be concealed. He’s maintaining secret law on the most extremist power he can assert.
Last night, NBC News’ Michael Isikoff released a 16-page “white paper” prepared by the Obama DOJ that purports to justify Obama’s power to target even Americans for assassination without due process (the memo is embedded in full below). This is not the primary OLC memo justifying Obama’s kill list – that is still concealed – but it appears to track the reasoning of that memo as anonymously described to the New York Times in October 2011.
This new memo is entitled: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force”. It claims its conclusion is “reached with recognition of the extraordinary seriousness of a lethal operation by the United States against a US citizen”. Yet it is every bit as chilling as the Bush OLC torture memos in how its clinical, legalistic tone completely sanitizes the radical and dangerous power it purports to authorize.
I’ve written many times at length about why the Obama assassination program is such an extreme and radical threat – see here for one of the most comprehensive discussions, with documentation of how completely all of this violates Obama and Holder’s statements before obtaining power – and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, there are numerous points that should be emphasized about the fundamentally misleading nature of this new memo:
1. Equating government accusations with guilt
The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit.
Time and again, it emphasizes that the authorized assassinations are carried out “against a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Undoubtedly fearing that this document would one day be public, Obama lawyers made certain to incorporate this deceit into the title itself: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida or An Associated Force.”
This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.
But of course, when this memo refers to “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida”, what it actually means is this: someone whom the President – in total secrecy and with no due process – has accused of being that. Indeed, the memo itself makes this clear, as it baldly states that presidential assassinations are justified when “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US”.
This is the crucial point: the memo isn’t justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that. The distinction between (a) government accusations and (b) proof of guilt is central to every free society, by definition, yet this memo – and those who defend Obama’s assassination power – willfully ignore it.
Those who justify all of this by arguing that Obama can and should kill al-Qaida leaders who are trying to kill Americans are engaged in supreme question-begging. Without any due process, transparency or oversight, there is no way to know who is a “senior al-Qaida leader” and who is posing an “imminent threat” to Americans. All that can be known is who Obama, in total secrecy, accuses of this.
(Indeed, membership in al-Qaida is not even required to be assassinated, as one can be a member of a group deemed to be an “associated force” of al-Qaida, whatever that might mean: a formulation so broad and ill-defined that, as Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller argues, it means the memo “authorizes the use of lethal force against individuals whose targeting is, without more, prohibited by international law”.)
The definition of an extreme authoritarian is one who is willing blindly to assume that government accusations are true without any evidence presented or opportunity to contest those accusations. This memo – and the entire theory justifying Obama’s kill list – centrally relies on this authoritarian conflation of government accusations and valid proof of guilt.
They are not the same and never have been. Political leaders who decree guilt in secret and with no oversight inevitably succumb to error and/or abuse of power. Such unchecked accusatory decrees are inherently untrustworthy (indeed, Yemen experts have vehemently contested the claim that Awlaki himself was a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat to the US). That’s why due process is guaranteed in the Constitution and why judicial review of government accusations has been a staple of western justice since the Magna Carta: because leaders can’t be trusted to decree guilt and punish citizens without evidence and an adversarial process. That is the age-old basic right on which this memo, and the Obama presidency, is waging war.
2. Creating a ceiling, not a floor
The most vital fact to note about this memorandum is that it is not purporting to impose requirements on the president’s power to assassinate US citizens. When it concludes that the president has the authority to assassinate “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” where capture is “infeasible”, it is not concluding that assassinations are permissible only in those circumstances. To the contrary, the memo expressly makes clear that presidential assassinations may be permitted even when none of those circumstances prevail: “This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful.” Instead, as the last line of the memo states: “it concludes only that the stated conditions would be sufficient to make lawful a lethal operation” – not that such conditions are necessary to find these assassinations legal. The memo explicitly leaves open the possibility that presidential assassinations of US citizens may be permissible even when the target is not a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat and/or when capture is feasible.
Critically, the rationale of the memo – that the US is engaged in a global war against al-Qaida and “associated forces” – can be easily used to justify presidential assassinations of US citizens in circumstances far beyond the ones described in this memo. If you believe the president has the power to execute US citizens based on the accusation that the citizen has joined al-Qaida, what possible limiting principle can you cite as to why that shouldn’t apply to a low-level al-Qaida member, including ones found in places where capture may be feasible (including US soil)? The purported limitations on this power set forth in this memo, aside from being incredibly vague, can be easily discarded once the central theory of presidential power is embraced.
3. Relies on the core Bush/Cheney theory of a global battlefield
The primary theory embraced by the Bush administration to justify its War on Terror policies was that the “battlefield” is no longer confined to identifiable geographical areas, but instead, the entire globe is now one big, unlimited “battlefield”. That theory is both radical and dangerous because a president’s powers are basically omnipotent on a “battlefield”. There, state power is shielded from law, from courts, from constitutional guarantees, from all forms of accountability: anyone on a battlefield can be killed or imprisoned without charges. Thus, to posit the world as a battlefield is, by definition, to create an imperial, omnipotent presidency. That is the radical theory that unleashed all the rest of the controversial and lawless Bush/Cheney policies.
This “world-is-a-battlefield” theory was once highly controversial among Democrats. John Kerry famously denounced it when running for president, arguing instead that the effort against terrorism is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world”.
But this global-war theory is exactly what lies at heart of the Obama approach to Terrorism generally and this memo specifically. It is impossible to defend Obama’s assassination powers without embracing it (which is why key Obama officials have consistently done so). That’s because these assassinations are taking place in countries far from any war zone, such as Yemen and Somalia. You can’t defend the application of “war powers” in these countries without embracing the once-very-controversial Bush/Cheney view that the whole is now a “battlefield” and the president’s war powers thus exist without geographic limits.
This new memo makes clear that this Bush/Cheney worldview is at the heart of the Obama presidency. The president, it claims, “retains authority to use force against al-Qaida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities“. In other words: there are, subject to the entirely optional “feasibility of capture” element, no geographic limits to the president’s authority to kill anyone he wants. This power applies not only to war zones, but everywhere in the world that he claims a member of al-Qaida is found. This memo embraces and institutionalizes the core Bush/Cheney theory that justified the entire panoply of policies Democrats back then pretended to find so objectionable.
4. Expanding the concept of “imminence” beyond recognition
The memo claims that the president’s assassination power applies to a senior al-Qaida member who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States”. That is designed to convince citizens to accept this power by leading them to believe it’s similar to common and familiar domestic uses of lethal force on US soil: if, for instance, an armed criminal is in the process of robbing a bank or is about to shoot hostages, then the “imminence” of the threat he poses justifies the use of lethal force against him by the police.
But this rhetorical tactic is totally misleading. The memo is authorizing assassinations against citizens in circumstances far beyond this understanding of “imminence”. Indeed, the memo expressly states that it is inventing “a broader concept of imminence” than is typically used in domestic law. Specifically, the president’s assassination power “does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack . . . will take place in the immediate future“. The US routinely assassinates its targets not when they are engaged in or plotting attacks but when they are at home, with family members, riding in a car, at work, at funerals, rescuing other drone victims, etc.
Many of the early objections to this new memo have focused on this warped and incredibly broad definition of “imminence”. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer told Isikoff that the memo “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning”. Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller called Jaffer’s objection “an understatement”, noting that the memo’s understanding of “imminence” is “wildly overbroad” under international law.
Crucially, Heller points out what I noted above: once you accept the memo’s reasoning – that the US is engaged in a global war, that the world is a battlefield, and the president has the power to assassinate any member of al-Qaida or associated forces – then there is no way coherent way to limit this power to places where capture is infeasible or to persons posing an “imminent” threat. The legal framework adopted by the memo means the president can kill anyone he claims is a member of al-Qaida regardless of where they are found or what they are doing.
The only reason to add these limitations of “imminence” and “feasibility of capture” is, as Heller said, purely political: to make the theories more politically palatable. But the definitions for these terms are so vague and broad that they provide no real limits on the president’s assassination power. As the ACLU’s Jaffer says: “This is a chilling document” because “it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen” and the purported limits “are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”
5. Converting Obama underlings into objective courts
This memo is not a judicial opinion. It was not written by anyone independent of the president. To the contrary, it was written by life-long partisan lackeys: lawyers whose careerist interests depend upon staying in the good graces of Obama and the Democrats, almost certainly Marty Lederman and David Barron. Treating this document as though it confers any authority on Obama is like treating the statements of one’s lawyer as a judicial finding or jury verdict.
Indeed, recall the primary excuse used to shield Bush officials from prosecution for their crimes of torture and illegal eavesdropping: namely, they got Bush-appointed lawyers in the DOJ to say that their conduct was legal, and therefore, it should be treated as such. This tactic – getting partisan lawyers and underlings of the president to say that the president’s conduct is legal – was appropriately treated with scorn when invoked by Bush officials to justify their radical programs. As Digby wrote about Bush officials who pointed to the OLC memos it got its lawyers to issue about torture and eavesdropping, such a practice amounts to:
“validating the idea that obscure Justice Department officials can be granted the authority to essentially immunize officials at all levels of the government, from the president down to the lowest field officer, by issuing a secret memo. This is a very important new development in western jurisprudence and one that surely requires more study and consideration. If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had known about this, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.”
Life-long Democratic Party lawyers are not going to oppose the terrorism policies of the president who appointed them. A president can always find underlings and political appointees to endorse whatever he wants to do. That’s all this memo is: the by-product of obsequious lawyers telling their Party’s leader that he is (of course) free to do exactly that which he wants to do, in exactly the same way that Bush got John Yoo to tell him that torture was not torture, and that even it if were, it was legal.
That’s why courts, not the president’s partisan lawyers, should be making these determinations. But when the ACLU tried to obtain a judicial determination as to whether Obama is actually authorized to assassinate US citizens, the Obama DOJ went to extreme lengths to block the court from ruling on that question. They didn’t want independent judges to determine the law. They wanted their own lawyers to do so.
That’s all this memo is: Obama-loyal appointees telling their leader that he has the authority to do what he wants. But in the warped world of US politics, this – secret memos from partisan lackeys – has replaced judicial review as the means to determine the legality of the president’s conduct.
6. Making a mockery of “due process”
The core freedom most under attack by the War on Terror is the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. It provides that “no person shall be . . . deprived of life . . . without due process of law”. Like putting people in cages for life on island prisons with no trial, claiming that the president has the right to assassinate US citizens far from any battlefield without any charges or trial is the supreme evisceration of this right.
The memo pays lip service to the right it is destroying: “Under the traditional due process balancing analysis . . . . we recognize that there is no private interest more weighty than a person’s interest in his life.” But it nonetheless argues that a “balancing test” is necessary to determine the extent of the process that is due before the president can deprive someone of their life, and further argues that, as the New York Times put it when this theory was first unveiled: “while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”
Stephen Colbert perfectly mocked this theory when Eric Holder first unveiled it to defend the president’s assassination program. At the time, Holder actually said: “due process and judicial process are not one and the same.” Colbert interpreted that claim as follows:
“Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”
It is fitting indeed that the memo expressly embraces two core Bush/Cheney theories to justify this view of what “due process” requires. First, it cites the Bush DOJ’s core view, as enunciated by John Yoo, that courts have no role to play in what the president does in the War on Terror because judicial review constitutes “judicial encroachment” on the “judgments by the President and his national security advisers as to when and how to use force”. And then it cites the Bush DOJ’s mostly successful arguments in the 2004 Hamdi case that the president has the authority even to imprison US citizens without trial provided that he accuses them of being a terrorist.
The reason this is so fitting is because, as I’ve detailed many times, it was these same early Bush/Cheney theories that made me want to begin writing about politics, all driven by my perception that the US government was becoming extremist and dangerous. During the early Bush years, the very idea that the US government asserted the power to imprison US citizens without charges and due process (or to eavesdrop on them) was so radical that, at the time, I could hardly believe they were being asserted out in the open.
Yet here we are almost a full decade later. And we have the current president asserting the power not merely to imprison or eavesdrop on US citizens without charges or trial, but to order them executed – and to do so in total secrecy, with no checks or oversight. If you believe the president has the power to order US citizens executed far from any battlefield with no charges or trial, then it’s truly hard to conceive of any asserted power you would find objectionable.
DOJ White Paper
Glenn Greenwald is a columnist on civil liberties and US national security issues for the Guardian. A former constitutional lawyer, he was until 2012 a contributing writer at Salon. His most recent book is, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. His other books include: Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism.
Western justice and transparency January 23, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, War on Terror.
Tags: anwar awlaki, Bilal el-Berjawi, cia drone, david baron, dawn johnsen, eric holder, extrajudicial killings, glen greenwald, marty lederman, president obama, presidential assassination, roger hollander, state secrets
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Anwar Awlaki and Barack Obama (Credit: AP)
On Saturday in Somalia, the U.S. fired missiles from a drone and killed the 27-year-old Lebanon-born, ex-British citizen Bilal el-Berjawi. His wife had given birth 24 hours earlier and the speculation is that the U.S. located him when his wife called to give him the news. Roughly one year ago, El-Berjawi was stripped of his British citizenship, obtained when his family moved to that country when he was an infant, through the use of a 2006 British anti-Terrorism law — passed after the London subway bombing — that the current government is using with increasing frequency to strip alleged Terrorists with dual nationality of their British citizenship (while providing no explanation for that act). El-Berjawi’s family vehemently denies that he is involved with Terrorism, but he was never able to appeal the decree against him for this reason:
Berjawi is understood to have sought to appeal against the order, but lawyers representing his family were unable to take instructions from him amid concerns that any telephone contact could precipitate a drone attack.
Obviously, those concerns were valid. So first the U.S. tries to assassinate people, then it causes legal rulings against them to be issued because the individuals, fearing for their life, are unable to defend themselves. Meanwhile, no explanation or evidence is provided for either the adverse government act or the assassination: it is simply secretly decreed and thus shall it be.
Exactly the same thing happened with U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki. When the ACLU and CCR, representing Awlaki’s father, sued President Obama asking a federal court to enjoin the President from killing his American son without a trial, the Obama DOJ insisted (and the court ultimately accepted) that Awlaki himself must sue on his own behalf. Obviously, that was impossible given that the Obama administration was admittedly trying to kill him and surely would have done so the minute he stuck his head up to contact lawyers (indeed, the U.S. tried to kill him each time they thought they had located him, and then finally succeeded). So again in the Awlaki case: the U.S. targets someone for death, and then their inability to defend themselves is used as a weapon to deny their legal rights.
The refusal to provide transparency is also the same. Ever since Awlaki was assassinated, the Obama administration has steadfastly refused to disclose not only any evidence to justify the accusations of Terrorism against him, but also the legal theories it is using to assert the power to target U.S. citizens for death with no charges. A secret legal memo authorizing the Awlaki assassination, authored by Obama lawyers David Baron and Marty Lederman, remains secret. During the Bush years, Democratic lawyers vehemently decried the Bush DOJ’s refusal to release even OLC legal memoranda as tyrannical “secret law.” One of the lawyers most vocal during the Bush years about the evils of “secret law,” Dawn Johnsen (the never-confirmed Obama appointee to be chief of the OLC) told me back in October: “I absolutely do not support the concealment of OLC’s Awlaki memo . . . .The Obama administration should release either any existing OLC memo explaining why it believes it has the authority for the targeted killings or a comparably detailed legal analysis of its claimed authorities.”
A Daily Beast report today says that the Obama administration “is finally going to break its silence” on the Awlaki killing, but here’s what they will and will not disclose:
In the coming weeks, according to four participants in the debate, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is planning to make a major address on the administration’s national-security record. Embedded in the speech will be a carefully worded but firm defense of its right to target U.S. citizens. . . .
An early draft of Holder’s speech identified Awlaki by name, but in a concession to concerns from the intelligence community, all references to the al Qaeda leader were removed. As currently written, the speech makes no overt mention of the Awlaki operation, and reveals none of the intelligence the administration relied on in carrying out his killing.
In other words, they’re going to dispatch Eric Holder to assert that the U.S. Government has the power to target U.S. citizens for assassination by-CIA-drone, but will not even describe a single piece of evidence to justify the claim that Awlaki was guilty of anything. In fact, they will not even mention his name. As Marcy Wheeler said today:
This is simply an asinine compromise. We all know the Administration killed Awlaki. We all know the Administration used a drone strike to do so. . . .
The problem–the problem that strikes at the very heart of democratic accountability–is that the Administration plans to keep secret the details that would prove (or not) that Awlaki was what the Administration happily claims he is under the veil of anonymity, all while claiming that precisely that information is a state secret.
The Administration seems to be planning on making a big speech on counterterrorism–hey! it’s another opportunity to brag again about offing Osama bin Laden!–without revealing precisely those details necessary to distinguish this killing, and this country, from that of an unaccountable dictator.
The CIA seems to have dictated to our democratically elected President that he can’t provide the kind of transparency necessary to remain a democracy. We can kill you–they appear to be planning to say–and we’ll never have to prove that doing so was just. You’ll just have to trust us!
That, of course, is the heart and soul of this administration’s mentality when it comes to such matters, and why not? Between Republicans who always cheer on the killing of Muslims with or without any explanation or transparency, and Democrats who do so when their leader is the assassin, there is little political pressure to explain themselves. If anything, this planned “disclosure” makes the problem worse, since we will now have the spectacle of Eric Holder, wallowing in pomp and legal self-righteousness, finally defending the power that Obama already has seized — to assassinate U.S. citizens in secret and with no checks — but concealing what is most needed: evidence that Awlaki was what the U.S. Government claims he is. That simply serves to reinforce the message this Government repeatedly sends: as Marcy puts it, “We can kill you and we’ll never have to prove that doing so was just. You’ll just have to trust us!” The Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen added: “The US legal opinion on Awlaki is one thing, but it rests on assumptions made by the intelligence community, which won’t be revealed.”
This no longer seems radical to many — it has become normalized — because it’s been going on for so long now and, more important, it is now fully bipartisan consensus. But to see how extreme this all really is, to understand what a radical departure it is, just consider what George Bush’s neocon Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, told the Israelis in 2001, as flagged by this Guardian Op-Ed by Mary Ellen O’Connell comparing Obama’s assassinations to Bush’s torture program:
The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.
What George Bush’s Ambassador condemned to the Israelis’ face just a decade ago as something the nation was steadfastly against has now become a staple of government policy: aimed even at its own citizens, and carried out with complete secrecy. And those who spent years mocking the notion that “9/11 Changed Everything” will have no choice but to invoke that propagandistic mantra in order to defend this: what else is there to say?
The killing of Awlaki’s 16-year-old son October 21, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice, Democracy, Human Rights, War on Terror.
Tags: Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, anwar awlaki, cluster bombs, collateral damage, dana priest, drone missiles, first amendment, glenn greenwald, government secrecy, investigative journalism, james risen, Media, obama administration, obama assassination, roger hollander, sky robots, whistle-blowers, whistleblowers, wikileaks
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Thursday, Oct 20, 2011 5:21 AM 21:23:15 CDT
Extreme secrecy, as usual, shrouds this act, but it underscores how often the U.S. uses violence around the world
Two weeks after the U.S. killed American citizen Anwar Awlaki with a drone strike in Yemen — far from any battlefield and with no due process — it did the same to his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, ending the teenager’s life on Friday along with his 17-year-old cousin and seven other people. News reports, based on government sources, originally claimed that Awlaki’s son was 21 years old and an Al Qaeda fighter (needless to say, as Terrorist often means: “anyone killed by the U.S.”), but a birth certificate published by The Washington Post proved that he was born only 16 years ago in Denver. As The New Yorker‘s Amy Davidson wrote: “Looking at his birth certificate, one wonders what those assertions say either about the the quality of the government’s evidence — or the honesty of its claims — and about our own capacity for self-deception.” The boy’s grandfather said that he and his cousin were at a barbecue and preparing to eat when the U.S. attacked them by air and ended their lives. There are two points worth making about this:
(1) It is unknown whether the U.S. targeted the teenager or whether he was merely “collateral damage.” The reason that’s unknown is because the Obama administration refuses to tell us. Said the Post: “The officials would not discuss the attack in any detail, including who the target was.” So here we have yet again one of the most consequential acts a government can take — killing one of its own citizens, in this case a teenage boy — and the government refuses even to talk about what it did, why it did it, what its justification is, what evidence it possesses, or what principles it has embraced in general for such actions. Indeed, it refuses even to admit it did this, since it refuses even to admit that it has a drone program at all and that it is engaged in military action in Yemen. It’s just all shrouded in total secrecy.
Of course, the same thing happened with the killing of Awlaki himself. The Executive Branch decided it has the authority to target U.S. citizens for death without due process, but told nobody (until it was leaked) and refuses to identify the principles that guide these decisions. It then concluded in a secret legal memo that Awlaki specifically could be killed, but refuses to disclose what it ruled or in which principles this ruling was grounded. And although the Obama administration repeatedly accused Awlaki of having an “operational role” in Terrorist plots, it has — as Davidson put it — “so far kept the evidence for that to itself.”
This is all part and parcel of the Obama administration’s extreme — at times unprecedented — fixation on secrecy. Even with Senators in the President’s own party warning that the administration’s secret interpretation of its domestic surveillance powers under the Patriot Act is so warped and radical that it would shock the public if they knew, Obama officials simply refuse even to release its legal memos setting forth how it is interpreting those powers. As EFF’s Trevor Timm told The Daily Beast today: “The government classified a staggering 77 million documents last year, a 40 percent increase on the year before.” And as I wrote about many times, the Obama administration even tried — and failed — to force The New York Times‘ James Risen to reveal his source for his story about an inept, disastrous CIA effort to infiltrate Iran’s nuclear program, but as Politico‘s Josh Gerstein reports today, the Obama DOJ is now appealing the decision in Risen’s favor. Gerstein writes:
The executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Lucy Dalglish, said the appeal was troubling for First Amendment advocates, but not unexpected.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Dalglish said “The Obama administration has made it absolutely clear they detest leakers and they are going to be very aggressive against leakers.”
Since Obama took office, his administration has initiated five prosecutions of alleged leakers under the Espionage Act — a sum roughly equal to the total number of such prosecutions in all prior administrations combined. . . .“It’s really looking like they want to put Risen in prison,” [the defendant’s lawyer Edward] MacMahon said in a brief interview. . . . “For the journalists in the world, it’s quite a significant First Amendment appeal.”
You can offer the ability to citizens to choose from one of the two parties and elect their leaders as much as you want. But “democracy” is an illusion — a sham — if the most significant acts taken by those leaders are kept concealed from the citizenry. Dana Priest and William Arkin wrote a multi-part series, and followed it up with a book, describing “Top Secret America”: the sprawling, secret government/private-sector apparatus accountable to nobody. Leaks and whistleblowers are the only real avenue remaining for citizens to know what their government does, and it’s why the Obama administration is so obsessed with persecuting whistleblowers, crushing WikiLeaks, and now even trying to imprison one of the nation’s best investigative journalists.
For many people, this type of secrecy is not bothersome because — when their party controls the White House — they trust their leader to be honest and act properly; that’s what Bush followers who viewed Bush as a good, earnest Christian constantly said in response to objections over radical secrecy, and it’s what many Obama followers say now (if Obama says someone is a Terrorist, I don’t need to see evidence: I’m sure he is – if Obama says Iran is behind a Terrorist plot, I don’t need to see evidence: I’m sure they are). But that obviously isn’t a healthy mindset when forming expectations of political leaders. More so, you can’t have a functioning democracy if the government refuses even to discuss its most radical and significant acts. The Obama administration is just off waging a secret war in Yemen, killing its own citizens from the sky, and refusing to account to anyone for what it’s doing. If you accept that level of secrecy, what don’t you accept?
(2) Every now and then it’s worth pausing to reflect on how often we talk about the killing of people by the U.S. Literally, the U.S. government is just continuously killing people in multiple countries around the world. Who else does that? Nobody — certainly nowhere near on this scale. The U.S. President expressly claims the power to target anyone he wants, anywhere in the world, for death, including his own citizens; he does it in total secrecy and with no oversight; and this power is not just asserted but routinely exercised. The U.S., over and over, eradicates people’s lives by the dozens from the sky, with bombs, with checkpoint shootings, with night raids — in far more places and far more frequently than any other nation or group on the planet. Those are just facts.
What’s most striking about this is how little effort is needed to induce America’s political and media elites to acquiesce to it. The government need do nothing more than utter empty nationalistic phrases such as “we’re at war” and “Terrorist!” and this unparalleled, endless state violence all becomes instantly justified. Yesterday, Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote about the Awlaki killings: “Many Yemenis can understand (if disagree) killing the father, few can understand killing the son,” and pointed to this Facebook entry from a young Yemeni as illustration of what he meant; read the text:
I have no doubt that many Americans, probably most, would consider this comparison to be outrageous hyperbole, even offensive and slanderous. I have just as little doubt that many Americans, probably most, would be saying things quite similar to this if it were another country, engaging in far more violence than all others, routinely zapping innocent teeangers, children, women and men out out of existence on American soil using sky robots and cluster bombs (just look at America’s ongoing reaction to a single, one-day attack on its soil a full decade ago). But the U.S. does this so often, and has for so long, that most of the citizenry has either concocted or ingested mental and intellectual strategies for pretending this doesn’t happen or justifying it when they can’t. So we just killed an American teenager and his teenage cousin by drone-bombing them to death? They merely join a very long list of similar recent victims — a list that, paradoxically, makes less of an impact the longer it becomes.
UPDATE: Those who believe evidence and transparency in such matters are unnecessary because the government under Obama — unlike under Bush — would never issue false claims about such things and can be trusted without accountability should review this and this.
The great generational threat July 10, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in War, War on Terror.
Tags: afghanistan troops, Afghanistan War, al-Qaeda, anwar awlaki, bin Laden, civilian casualties, drone attcks, drone missiles, glenn greenwald, Karzai, leon panetta, national security, patriot act, roger hollander, surveillance state, terrorism, terrorist, terrorist attacks, war on terror
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Roger’s note: no one is better at unmasking the motives behind the Bush Obama agenda than Glenn Greenwald. But one has to ask the question: what is served by the “National Security and Surveillance State” that the United States has become? In broad terms the answer is simple: the Empire. The enormous apparatus of the National Security and Surveillance State is necessary to maintain and protect the US corporate interests around the globe. This includes the FBI and the Patriot Act at home, the CIA and its vast network of torture and drone missile targeted assassination abroad, and of course the array of US military scattered amongst the nooks and crannies of the four corners of the world. It is a dying empire that is doomed to collapse under its own weight, but oh the suffering and destruction that it will engender as it dies its slow and agonizing death.
In just the past two months alone (all subsequent to the killing of Osama bin Laden), the U.S. Government has taken the following steps in the name of battling the Terrorist menace: extended the Patriot Act by four years without a single reform; begun a new CIA drone attack campaign in Yemen; launched drone attacks in Somalia; slaughtered more civilians in Pakistan; attempted to assassinate U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki far from any battlefield and without a whiff of due process; invoked secrecy doctrines to conceal legal memos setting forth its views of its own domestic warrantless surveillance powers; announced a “withdrawal”plan for Afghanistan that entails double the number of troops in that country as were there when Obama was inaugurated; and invoked a very expansive view of its detention powers under the 2001 AUMF by detaining an alleged member of al-Shabab on a floating prison, without charges, Miranda warnings, or access to a lawyer. That’s all independent of a whole slew of drastically expanded surveillance powers seized over the past two years in the name of the same threat.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared Saturday that the United States is “within reach” of “strategically defeating” Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat, but that doing so would require killing or capturing the group’s 10 to 20 remaining leaders.
Heading to Afghanistan for the first time since taking office earlier this month, Panetta said that intelligence uncovered in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May showed that 10 years of U.S. operations against Al Qaeda had left it with fewer than two dozen key operatives, most of whom are in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa.
In one sense, it’s commendable that Panetta is acknowledging this, though he’s doing so to protect the President from political attacks in the wake of his announced withdrawal of 30,000 troops from Afghanistan. But in another, more important sense, Panetta knows that this disclosure won’t even slightly impede the always-expanding National Security State and the War on Terror which justifies it — just like the acknowledgment long ago that there were fewer than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in all of Afghanistan had no effect on our decade-long war there. That’s because — as the above-described events of the last eight weeks demonstrate — civil liberties assaults and expansions of executive power are not what the U.S. Government does in response to some actual problem; it’s what the public-private consortium composing the U.S. Government is. Terrorist villains are the pretext for, not the cause of, those policies, and they will continue irrespective of the scope or magnitude of Terrorism.
Indeed, even as he described the puny, broken, absurd state of Al Qaeda — one that has, at most, produced a grand total of one attack on U.S. soil in the last decade and a handful of amateurish, low-level attempts thwarted by regular police powers, and kills fewer Americans each year than intestinal ailments — Panetta claimed “that it would take “more work'”; that “now is the moment following the death of Bin Laden to put maximum pressure“; that “it was from Yemen — not Pakistan — that the U.S. faces the most potent threat of future terrorist attacks, from an Al Qaeda offshoot known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, where “the group has gained strength in recent months as unrest has swept through Sana, the capital, and large swaths of its rugged hinterlands, where militants are growing in strength“; and that we have to kill all the remaining operatives. In other words, he offered multiple reasons why the War on Terror and the civil liberties abuses justified in its name must not only continue but be escalated.
Of course, just in case those propagandistic claims aren’t sufficient — we must wage war in multiple countries and seize ever-expanding surveillance powers to stop this group of two dozen Terrorist masterminds — the U.S. is doing everything possible to ensure that Terrorism remains as large as a threat as possible:
A NATO air strike has killed at least 14 civilians, including eight children, in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, local police say. . . .The deadly air raid came a day after two children were reportedly killed in a separate air strike in southwest Ghazni province.
The killing of civilians by foreign troops is a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, and has soured the feelings of many ordinary Afghans towards foreign forces. . . . As violence has spread across the country, casualties have risen, and the United Nations said May was the deadliest month for civilians since they began keeping records four years earlier.
I long believed that the most patently irrational American policy — the one that would cause future generations to look back in baffled disgust — was the Drug War: imprisoning huge numbers of citizens for years and years for nothing more than possessing or selling banned substances to consenting adults. But now I think it’s this: that the U.S. Government is able to persuade the populace to continue to support and pay for blood-spilling and liberty-destroying policies in the name of Terrorism when nothing sustains and exacerbates the threat of Terrorism more than those very policies. Just like the FBI continues to manufacture its own Terrorist plots that it then flamboyantly boasts of thwarting, the U.S. continues to generate the threat that justifies its National Security and Surveillance State.
* * * * *
In the last week alone, U.S.-allied governments have done the following to their own citizens: killed “dozens of civilians” in Yemen; beaten anti-government protesters in Baghdad while the Iraqi Prime Minister threatened “bloodshed” and “blood to the knees” if protests continued; attacked protesters in Cairo with arms; and beat opposition protesters in prison and branded them “traitors” in Bahrain. As we recently learned, the U.S. cannot and will not “stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy.” What, then, can and should the U.S. do in the face of this oppression? Don’t we have more of a responsibility to act when such brutality is carried out by regimes that we arm, support and prop up than by ones we don’t?
- More: Glenn Greenwald
Obama argues his assassination program is a “state secret” September 27, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Civil Liberties, Criminal Justice.
Tags: anwar awlaki, assassination, civil liberties, constitution, david rivkin, doj, due process, executive power, glenn greenwald, Obama, presidency, state secrets, treaso
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Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 15:26 ET
At this point, I didn’t believe it was possible, but the Obama administration has just reached an all-new low in its abysmal civil liberties record. In response to the lawsuit filed by Anwar Awlaki’s father asking a court to enjoin the President from assassinating his son, a U.S. citizen, without any due process, the administration late last night, according to The Washington Post, filed a brief asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit without hearing the merits of the claims. That’s not surprising: both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly insisted that their secret conduct is legal but nonetheless urge courts not to even rule on its legality. But what’s most notable here is that one of the arguments the Obama DOJ raises to demand dismissal of this lawsuit is “state secrets”: in other words, not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are “state secrets,” and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.
A very intense case of food poisoning in New York on Thursday, combined with my traveling home all night last night, prevents me from writing much about this until tomorrow (and it’s what rendered the blog uncharacteristically silent for the last two days). But I would hope that nobody needs me or anyone else to explain why this assertion of power is so pernicious — at least as pernicious as any power asserted during the Bush/Cheney years. If the President has the power to order American citizens killed with no due process, and to do so in such complete secrecy that no courts can even review his decisions, then what doesn’t he have the power to do? Just for the moment, I’ll note that The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage, two weeks ago, wrote about the possibility that Obama might raise this argument, and quoted the far-right, Bush-supporting, executive-power-revering lawyer David Rivkin as follows:
The government’s increasing use of the state secrets doctrine to shield its actions from judicial review has been contentious. Some officials have argued that invoking it in the Awlaki matter, about which so much is already public, would risk a backlash. David Rivkin, a lawyer in the White House of President George H. W. Bush, echoed that concern.
“I’m a huge fan of executive power, but if someone came up to you and said the government wants to target you and you can’t even talk about it in court to try to stop it, that’s too harsh even for me,” he said.
Having debated him before, I genuinely didn’t think it was possible for any President to concoct an assertion of executive power and secrecy that would be excessive and alarming to David Rivkin, but Barack Obama managed to do that, too. Obama’s now asserting a power so radical — the right to kill American citizens and do so in total secrecy, beyond even the reach of the courts — that it’s “too harsh even for” one of the most far-right War on Terror cheerleading-lawyers in the nation. But that power is certainly not “too harsh” for the kind-hearted Constitutional Scholar we elected as President, nor for his hordes of all-justifying supporters soon to place themselves to the right of David Rivkin as they explain why this is all perfectly justified. One other thing, as always: vote Democrat, because the Republicans are scary!
* * * * *
The same Post article quotes a DOJ spokesman as saying that Awlaki “should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions.” But he’s not been charged with any crimes, let alone indicted for any. The President has been trying to kill him for the entire year without any of that due process. And now the President refuses even to account to an American court for those efforts to kill this American citizen on the ground that the President’s unilateral imposition of the death penalty is a “state secret.” And, indeed, American courts — at Obama’s urging — have been upholding that sort of a “state secrecy” claim even when it comes to war crimes such as torture and rendition. Does that sound like a political system to which any sane, rational person would “surrender”?
Marcy Wheeler has more on other aspects of the DOJ’s arguments, and I’ll have more tomorrow as well.
UPDATE: As a reminder: Obama supporters who are dutifully insisting that the President not only has the right to order American citizens killed without due process, but to do so in total secrecy, on the ground that Awlaki is a Terrorist and Traitor, are embracing those accusations without having the slightest idea whether they’re actually true. All they know is that Obama has issued these accusations, which is good enough for them. That’s the authoritarian mind, by definition: if the Leader accuses a fellow citizen of something, then it’s true — no trial or any due process at all is needed and there is no need even for judicial review before the decreed sentence is meted out, even when the sentence is death.
For those reciting the “Awlaki-is-a-traitor” mantra, there’s also the apparently irrelevant matter that Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution (the document which these same Obama supporters pretended to care about during the Bush years) provides that “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.” Treason is a crime that the Constitution specifically requires be proven with due process in court, not by unilateral presidential decree. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the same document — the Constitution — expressly forbids the deprivation of life “without due process of law.” This one sentence from the Post article nicely summarizes the state of Obama’s civil liberties record:
The Obama administration has cited the state-secrets argument in at least three cases since taking office – in defense of Bush-era warrantless wiretapping, surveillance of an Islamic charity, and the torture and rendition of CIA prisoners.
And now, in this case, Obama uses this secrecy and immunity weapon not to shield Bush lawlessness from judicial review, but his own.