Peace by Armed Force: The “Legal Case” for Killing Americans

predator-firing-missile4-800x365.jpgLast night NBC posted a leaked copy of the Obama Administration's 16-page white paper (PDF) laying out a defense of its controversial practice of using drones to kill American citizens suspected of terrorism. This is not really a new revelation--we knew the Obama Administration had compiled a secret kill list, and that there have been Americans on that list. But, this white paper does shed some light on how that list is justified. And there are some big changes: whereas previous doctrine held that such killings could take place in the case of clear knowledge of a specific terrorist plot, the memo says differently:

[A]n “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”

In other words, if someone high enough in the U.S. government has any reason to believe that you might have engaged in some activity, at one time in the recent past, that may potentially pose a threat of violence, they can order your death. Unsurprisingly, this document is worrisome to experts on civil liberties:

“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, which is suing to obtain administration memos about the targeted killing of Americans. “Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”

The 16-page white paper is likely the tip of the iceberg, with many suspecting a host of legal documents outlining the Obama Administration's justification for killing American citizens. A bipartisan group of senators (led by Ron Wyden, D-OR) wants to know more about the Administration's policy, and has written a letter requesting a more full explanation. Michael Isikoff, who originally obtained the white paper, summarizes the letter:

While accepting that “there will clearly be circumstances in which the president has the authority to use lethal force” against Americans who take up arms against the country, it said, “It is vitally important ... for Congress and the American public to have a full understanding of how the executive branch interprets the limits and boundaries of this authority.”

War is never a simple situation. We understand that. And if someone poses an imminent threat to American citizens, that person obviously needs to be stopped. But, we echo the worries of others who are shocked that stripping American citizens of due process of law (innocent until proven guilty? right to a speedy trial?) can be accepted by so many Americans--Obama's opponents and his supporters. Glenn Greenwald makes a compelling case that Obama supporters should think twice about this policy:

If you’re going to ... argue that this is all justified [if an American] is an Evil, Violent, Murdering Terrorist Trying to Kill Americans, you should say how you know that. Generally, guilt is determined by having a trial where the evidence is presented and the accused has an opportunity to defend himself — not by putting blind authoritarian faith in the unchecked accusations of government leaders, even if it happens to be Barack Obama. That’s especially true given how many times accusations of Terrorism by the U.S. Government have proven to be false.

We have written before about our disappointment in the warmongering accepted by this administration. We repeat President Joseph F. Smith's caution about becoming distracted by war's false promises of peace (posted on our Foreign Policy page):

One thing is certain, the doctrine of peace by armed force, … is a failure, and should without question forever be abandoned. It has been wrong from the beginning. That we get what we prepare for is literally true in this case.

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