Friday, March 15, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #99 - Part 8

Outrage of the Week: Death by drone?

You surely know about Sen. Rand Paul's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" 13-hour filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. My own response was to say that I never thought the words "right on, Rand Paul" would ever cross my lips, but there they were. As Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks put it, "Just because I disagree with Rand Paul on 90% of issues, does that mean I have to disagree with him on the other 10%?" Or, as an old saying I like goes, "If it's the truth, what does it matter who said it?"

I could not, any still can't, imagine why lefties were supposed to be supporting a man who was involved in either bungling or deliberately distorting intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War, endorsed torture, and is the architect of Obama's drone policy, which he defended as "ethical and just."

Still, while Brennan was the target of the filibuster, it's purpose was to force the White House to give a direct answer to the question of if Obama is claiming to have the authority to use lethal military force against Americans on American soil without any sort of due process or oversight. In the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, he had already claimed that power in the case of Americans abroad. Given that the NDAA provides for the authority to imprison anyone suspected of being "a part of or [having] substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces," whatever "substantially supported" and "associated forces" might mean, any such person can be imprisoned indefinitely without trial or charge. Given those two things, the question naturally arose of what are the limits of authority, indeed are there any. Three years ago, when Awlaki was killed, I asked with that bright red line, the killing of an American citizen far from any battlefield without due process, with that bright red line having been crossed, what was the impenetrable barrier to doing the same thing at home?

Paul was demanding an answer to that question. Unfortunately, he never got one.

Despite the blather and bluster of the supposedly liberal pundits and bloggers, all those who have shown themselves every bit as much prisoners of the desire for partisan gain as is the right wing, despite all those who mocked Paul - and I'm looking at you, Lawrence O'Donnell and David Corn and Ed Shultz - despite all those "liberal" members of the Senate who brushed it all off as a distraction or a sideshow - and I'm looking at you, Max Baucus and Claire McCaskill and Carl Levin and Bernie Sanders - despite all of that and contrary to what a lot of them claimed and the media echoed, Attorney General Eric Holder did not disclaim presidential authority to kill Americans on American soil.

The claim that he did arose from a snarky letter Holder sent to Rand Paul during the filibuster. It read, in full,
It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: "Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" The answer to that question is no.
Even Paul declared victory, but I suspect that he did so more to give himself an out for the filibuster, a way to back out without backing down, than for any real feeling of victory. Because, as I've been saying to anyone who will listen, the key phrase in that note is "not engaged in combat." Have we forgotten how slippery the notion of "combat" has become?

Glenn Greenwald, who is a constitutional attorney and writer, noted that
The Awlaki assassination was justified on the ground that Awlaki was a "combatant", that he was "engaged in combat", even though he was killed not while making bombs or shooting at anyone but after he had left a cafe where he had breakfast. If the Obama administration believes that Awlaki was "engaged in combat" at the time he was killed - and it clearly does - then Holder's letter is meaningless at best, and menacing at worst, because that standard is so broad as to vest the president with exactly the power his supporters now insist he disclaimed.
Remember that the NDAA essentially defines anyone who "was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces" - again, whatever those terms mean - but such a person was defined as being "engaged in hostilities against the United States." And be aware that in his answer, Holder omitted an important qualifier in Rand's question: Rather than asking about "an American not engaged in combat on American soil," he asked about "an American not actively engaged in combat on American soil." [My emphasis.] I'll leave it to you to decide if ignoring that particular adverb was deliberate or not.

One other thing here: this has nothing to do with Obama's intention or desire to use drones or other means of assassination against citizens at home. He may have no desire to do it, he may refuse to do it if the situation arose. That's not the issue. The issue is the authority: not whether or not he would use it but whether or not he has it. Because even if you say, as some liberal pundits I have seen have said, "I trust this president," do you trust every future president?

The Obama administration has not specifically declared that he has the authority to kill Americans on American soil who he suspects are members of or "substantially supported" al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or "associated forces" and do it with no due process or oversight, with no check on his power. It has not specifically declared he does have that authority - but it has gone considerably out of its way to avoid saying he does not.

Make of that what you will; I consider it - and remember, all this, all this, is without even considering the whole drone program itself, the whole kill from the safety of your bunker program, the whole it doesn't matter how many innocents die as long as it's not us program, even without considering any of this but only just how unlimited this president thinks his power is, even without considering the rest, this is still an outrage.


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