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Best of 2013: Liberal Silence on Kill List Policies Stinks of Hypocrisy


If Senator Rand Paul's recent filibuster of new CIA Director John Brennan's Senate confirmation hearings received adequate coverage in the mainstream media, it certainly didn't benefit from a fair perspective. Paul raised a very important question on a historic subject, the concern for which has largely seemed isolated to the Libertarian movement. Outside of a small minority on the most progressive fringe of the party's base, most Democrats have given the President a pass on a policy that has included assassinating U.S. citizens abroad. But had it been implemented by Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft, I suspect it would have driven them to the streets in protest.

Prior to Senator Paul's epic 13-hour filibuster, the President had met with very little meaningful pushback of his expansion of drone use, even after two U.S. citizens were targeted and killed abroad in separate drone strikes in 2011. When it was revealed that the administration had secretly and unilaterally enacted a policy by which they maintained a secret kill list of people who could be targeted for extrajudicial assassination -- at least some of whom were apparently Americans -- they still drew surprisingly little populist opposition considering the magnitude of such a policy.

The immediate questions posed by those who did express skepticism were: 1) Is this constitutional? and 2) Did President Obama interpret his policy to include the option of executing such attacks as the drone strikes which killed American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and his son in Yemen, even on U.S. soil?

For a year and a half, a clear answer wasn't given. In fact, no one in the administration had even officially acknowledged the policy until April of 2012, when Brennan (who was then President Obama's Chief Counterterrorism Advisor) said in a speech that there is nothing preventing the administration from using drone strikes outside of a combat theater. In the written questions answered as part of his confirmation, Brennan further asserted that there was "no geographical limitation" to using military force. While giving testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Eric Holder himself did not rule out "hypothetical" instances of "extraordinary circumstances" where drone strikes would be used on U.S. soil.

It wasn't until Senator Paul (R-Kentucky) had been filibustering for half a day that Holder finally issued a response that said the administration did not claim the right to "use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil." The fact that this debate was dismissed by anyone as petty is disappointing. To see so-called liberals like Congresswoman Diane Feinstein (D-California) flippantly toss the issue aside, calling al-Awlaki a "so-called" American and asking only that Brennan confirm that he wasn't "upstanding" and "not an American citizen by where anyone in America would be proud,” was troubling to say the least. Who would want someone else's interpretation of whether you would make your countrymen proud to be the only thing standing between you and the hereafter?

The administration's so-called "white paper," a 16-page brief supposedly stating what it believes to be its case for its drone policy, which was supposed to answer many of the questions raised by those skeptical of it, did little more than prove how thin its premise really is. The Obama administration derives the vast bulk of its perceived authority on what it determines to be a blank check granted by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which says a lot for those who were uncomfortable with granting President Bush such vast power back then. Beyond that act of Congress, it relies chiefly on the Supreme Court decision in Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld, and its own interpretation of the limits of Presidential power, which it concedes are more or less unprecedented in terms of where they take it.  

It seems that the President, most of Congress, and even a majority of the American people are okay with the idea that as long as these are bad guys we're talking about, there's no harm in flying fast and loose with constitutional rights like judicial review. I for one have a lot of trouble with a policy that seems to say summary execution based on secret evidence, lacking any sort of judicial review (the administration outwardly rules out a role for the courts) is okay because someone says that it's the best way they can keep Americans safe, even if they don't really say why until after they've executed them.

Keep in mind, despite the administration's continued assurance that al-Awlaki was a top guy in al-Queda with an operational role, it has relied mostly on evidence, as Brennan reiterated during the hearings, that he "inspired" and "incited" operatives with his sermons. That sounds too much like the sort of rationale that has been historically used by the most ruthless and despotic regimes when explaining to their people why they had to execute some of their fellow countrymen who professed loudly to disagree with their policies.

In a free society, the idea that someone's dissent alone is dangerous to our safety because it is likely to incite or inspire someone to take up arms against us, shouldn't be less troubling just because we disagree with that dissent, as I suspect most Americans do in the case of al-Awlaki. Instead, Americans should be very concerned about the precedent such a policy sets and the way that it might be used and expanded by future administrations. After all, it is the vagueness of the AUMF, written before drone warfare was even a factor, that has landed us at this debate.

This sort of extrajudicial expansion of presidential power is typically an area where Libertarians, liberals and progressives can find common ground -- the very sort that is needed to build a coalition sizable enough to challenge the entrenched interests of neocons and establishment Democrats who dogmatically support the military industrial complex. In fact, during the Bush years, it often was. But if a majority of Democrats continue to ignore that which I'm confident their gut is telling them -- that this is a dangerous and troubling policy -- all because they believe their guy wouldn't abuse it, or are afraid of being tarred as soft on defense, then shame on them.

Meanwhile, it should be no surprise in 2016 if both parties continue to lose young voters to movements like the one Senator Paul's father spearheaded in 2008 and 2012. Kudos to Senator Paul for getting Americans an answer to a very important question. As he said during his filibuster, no one person should have the power "to charge an individual, to judge the guilt of an individual and to execute an individual. It goes against everything that we fundamentally believe in our country." 


Anwar al-Awlaki's Case Should Raise Red Flags with Americans

Published Saturday, October 22, 2011 2:15 am

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.


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