Who Can Obama Kill?

Anwar al-Awlaki

The most talked-about story of the week was the NYT’s report of President Obama’s “kill list” of presumed Al Qaeda members who can become the targets of drone strikes.

In some sense we already knew the basics: The United States launches drone attacks that kill people in countries where we are not officially at war. There must be some process that chooses those people, and since it doesn’t include any judicial or legislative process, everyone involved must ultimately report to one person, the President.

Being an American citizen is no protection from this kind of death. We’ve known that since Kamal Derwish was killed in Yemen in 2002 because he was in a car with Qaed Salim Sinana al-Harethi, the suspected planner of the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. President Obama ratified that part of the Bush worldview when he ordered the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic cleric who supported Al Qaeda ideologically, and was alleged to have become active in planning operations against America.

What was new in the article was, on the surface, the amount of detail we got about the process and how personally involved in it President Obama is. No one goes on the list without his personal approval, and he does not simply sign off on the recommendations of his subordinates.

But the subtext of the story was, in some ways, even more disturbing: The only way such a story could be written was with the cooperation of the White House. Numerous current and former administration sources are quoted; they didn’t all go rogue simultaneously. So the White House wanted us to know this stuff.

It’s an election year, so you have to assume the purpose is political. Presumably, the Obama campaign believes that ordering people’s deaths looks presidential. Presumably, getting a more detailed picture of Obama ordering deaths will assuage independent voters who might worry that Obama isn’t tough enough to defend the country.

Possibly, people like me are supposed to be comforted by the seriousness of the process. Actually, I’m not. I had always assumed the process was serious, at least in this administration. I’m sure they go to great lengths to make sure we’re not firing missiles at just anybody.

The problem, which is unchanged from the Bush years, is the lack of checks and balances. Maybe we’ll be lucky, and all future presidents will use this power conscientiously. But as long as the process is secret and unchecked, we are depending on the virtue of the president. All it will take to abuse this power is for one man to become corrupt or sloppy. Any secret executive-branch process that can be established by a president can be disestablished just as easily, without public notice.

President Obama owes us something better than this.

I recognize that the situation is not simple. If all these people were on a battlefield wearing the uniform of an enemy, ordering someone or something to shoot at them would be a normal part of war. The fact that Al Qaeda scatters its members across many countries and mixes with the civilian population does not make them less of an enemy or less deadly.

Yes, the battlefield could be anywhere and the enemy could be anyone. But the Bush formula, in which a battlefield commander’s prerogatives extend to all places and coalesce around the president, is a recipe for an eventual dictatorship and a reign of terror. In the long run, I am more afraid of such an omni-empowered president than I am of the terrorists.

And while I respect President Obama’s desire to take personal responsibility for these deadly decisions, if such decisions are made in the White House, eventually, in somebody’s White House, they will be made for political reasons. Dip in the polls? Let’s kill somebody.

The Founders did not envision this kind of war, and the Constitution was not written for it. But the overall principle of checks-and-balances should still apply. If you want to kill people who aren’t in a Congressionally-approved war zone, especially if they are American citizens, you ought to have to convince someone who doesn’t work for you. And ultimately, you should be held accountable for your decisions by somebody else who doesn’t work for you.

It should never be legal for one person, checked only by his subordinates, to order your death. That seems like an absolute minimum.

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  • Lance Brown  On June 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t comment on this quote from the NY Times article showing how the Obama administration has redefined the term ‘militant’ to reduce the number of civilian casualties it has to acknowledge:

    “It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

    Everyone killed in a drone attack is a militant, therefore we aren’t killing civilians. This is vile.

    • weeklysift  On June 6, 2012 at 9:42 am

      You make a good point and I’m not going to defend killing civilians or miscounting them. But I wanted to write a short, focused article on the systemic dangers of executive power — which was the main thing I criticized Bush for.

      Truthfully, I’ve never believed the civilian-casualty numbers anyway, so finding out exactly how they are fudged didn’t shock me. And if we published the correct numbers, I suspect there would be no public outrage.


  • By The Authority of Women « The Weekly Sift on June 4, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    […] Who Can Obama Kill? If you want to kill American citizens, at the absolute minimum you should have to convince somebody who doesn’t work for you. […]

  • By Violations « The Weekly Sift on February 11, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    […] and then (Execution Without Trial when Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in 2011, and again last June in Who Can Obama Kill?), but never gave it the week-in-week-out attention that I had in the Bush […]

  • […] and Facebook varieties. As this blog’s regular readers undoubtedly know, I generally (though not always) support President Obama. I voted for him twice, I believe in his overall good intentions, and I […]

  • […] I sympathize with one point: #21, the “kill list” of American citizens who can be targeted by drones or military raids. It actually exists and […]

  • By Farewell, Mr. President | The Weekly Sift on January 16, 2017 at 8:58 am

    […] to prevent the most egregious abuses of these extraordinary powers. But if President Obama could order the death of an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki, a more malevolent future president could kill any of […]

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