By Nick Davis
It’s been about a couple weeks since President Obama and the Justice Department released their legal memo with regards to the drone program only because a leaked memo recovered by NBC forced its hand. In fact, the government still doesn’t even acknowledge its existence and speaks in hypotheticals. The issue that first arose back in 2011 when American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16 year old son, were targeted and killed by two separate drone strikes, has taken a tumultuous turn after the release of a memo that suggests it is perfectly legal for the United States government to kill an American citizen.
It’s certainly a valid question. The United States government would need a judge’s approval to wiretap Anwar Awlaki’s telephone. However, the president can unilaterally order the assassination of Anwar Awlaki, under the stipulations set forth in the white paper. (What is a white paper anyways?)
After taking a step back, weighing the arguments flying back and forth and observing Attorney General Eric Holder handle questions from the press, there are a couple things that I think deserve our attention and should shape our view of this memo.
In an increasingly divisive political landscape, it’s not often that media outlets Fox News and MSNBC agree. Each network has featured the drone memo as front-page news on both their nightly news as well as on their talk shows. Pundits on both channels have in one way or another roundly criticized the perceived overreach of power.
The conservative outlet Fox News veered off the conventional path of a strong national defense. This time it has become a staunch leader of traditional conservative values, due process, and constitutionalism. It frequently featured contributors criticizing the federal government for violating due process clauses of the constitution, including Judge Andrew Napolitano. The judge has made it clear that the constitution doesn’t grant authority to the government to kill anyone without due process.
While Napolitano questioned the constitutional legality of the memo, Rachel Maddow approached the subject from a practical standpoint. In one of her opening monologues, Maddow acknowledged that everybody is in favor killing ‘bad guys.’ But, how do you determine who is a bad guy? The words ‘imminent,’ ‘activities,’ and ‘senior US officials’ as it pertains to who can order a strike, are not defined and leave themselves to be easily manipulated. Even if someone knew that they were a suspect (which they don’t), how would they go about proving their innocence if no formal charges are filed and the government skips the trial and assumes guilt?
So, what should we make of this bipartisan reaction to the drone memo? It’s not often that there is a federal policy that is roundly disliked by both parties. Despite legal questions, public outrage itself should tell us about how the American people feel about the ethical implications involved. Let’s be clear. This memo authorizes the killing of American citizens without trial. If that doesn’t upset you, it should.
Additionally, the answers provided to questions over the drone memo by Holder indicate a mix of corruption and secrecy. The day after the memo was released, Holder fielded questions about the legal definitions and justifications to the wording and intent of the document. When asked what the difference between an ongoing and imminent threat is, the Attorney General responded, “We’ll have to look into that.” So he’s saying that he doesn’t know what’s in his own memo? Doubtful. He knows the white paper is heavily dependent on loose vocabulary.
To add to the secrecy, the congressional judiciary committees are the only entities outside of the Obama administration allowed to view the memos. The lawmakers are not allowed to take notes, make copies, or show their staffs. Wow.
Jay Carney tells us that the President takes his role ‘very seriously.’ I should hope so. Has he or his administration taken into account how these legal justifications could be used or interpreted in the future? The concern among many is that this memo could justify the killing of any American, not just a known terrorist. And frankly, it already has, al-Awlaki’s son Samir, was 16 when he was killed. He had no reputation as a terrorist and was never even accused as being such. He just had the unfortunate opportunity to have one as a parent. Everybody enjoys safety and security. This time however, it has crossed a line