In Case You Didn’t Know, A “Lawless” President Obama Doesn’t Want To Kill You With Drones

More than a year ago I wrote about President Obama’s use of drones in the war against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world. I essentially endorsed, with some discomfort, the way the President was handling his job as commander-in-chief relative to his use of drones in general and the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki in particular.

Mr. Obama’s incredibly thoughtful speech on Thursday, at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., confirmed by endorsement and took away much of the discomfort.

I don’t know how any fair-minded person, which excludes most of the conservatives you meet on the street, or on cable TV, these days, could have heard the President’s speech and not have come away with a great deal of comfort that he, and not John McCain or Mitt Romney, is our commander-in-chief.

I won’t analyze the entire speech, but I do want to point out a part that addresses what so many liberals and lefties—as well as the usual gaggle of libertarianish Republicans—have been harping on, with some increasing intensity, for quite a while:

For the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone or with a shotgun — without due process. Nor should any president deploy armed drones over U.S. soil.

But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.

That’s who Anwar Awlaki was. He was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S.-bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day bomber, went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and his last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil.

I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn’t. And as president, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took him out.

I suggest a careful reading of the entire speech for anyone interested in how our modern military power should be applied these days. It is essentially the President “thinking out loud” about some of these topics, while being resolute on others. (He also handled a Code Pink protester fabulously, granting her the dignity of her position and weaving her into his speech at the end.)

Particularly interesting was his comments on the Authorized Use of Military Force, which was passed on September 14, 2001:

Now, all these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact, in sometimes unintended ways, the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorism without keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al-Qaida is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al-Qaida will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states.

So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine and ultimately repeal the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.

Contrast this discussion with what the now-ridiculous columnist George Will wrote in yet another ridiculous column about President Obama’s “lawlessness.”

Will was discussing Obama’s controversial recess appointments (the Supreme Court will ultimately determine their constitutionality) of three members to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and comparing that action, unbelievably, to the infamous racist act by George Wallace 50 years ago, “when he stood in the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two young blacks from registering as students.”

If that comparison weren’t embarrassing enough, Will wasn’t finished:

Courts defeated Wallace’s lawlessness. Presumably the Supreme Court will defeat Obama’s by telling the NLRB that the D.C. court was right about recess appointments. By such judicial vigilance against the excesses of elected officials, democracy is disciplined and progressivism’s agenda — unchecked executive power — is understood to be unconstitutional.

I, being a progressive, wasn’t aware that progressivism’s agenda was “unchecked executive power.”  Geeze. I thought it was unchecked executive power that gave progressives and liberals the heebie jeebies. In any case, President Obama’s amazingly engrossing and thoughtful speech on Thursday, in which he wants Congress to take pack the “unbound powers” it has granted to the executive branch, makes a fool not only out of George Will, but all those who think this president is power mad.

Can The Government Kill Citizens Overseas?

I’m sorry to disappoint some of my fellow liberals, but I can’t go all the way with the ACLU on this one:

“Few things are as dangerous to American liberty as the proposition that the government should be able to kill citizens anywhere in the world on the basis of legal standards and evidence that are never submitted to a court, either before or after the fact,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.

“Anyone willing to trust President Obama with the power to secretly declare an American citizen an enemy of the state and order his extrajudicial killing should ask whether they would be willing to trust the next president with that dangerous power,” she said.

The ACLU is suing the Obama administration, seeking to have documents regarding the targeted killing program made public.

It’s not that I “trust President Obama,” as much as it is that, as Eric Holder said,

The Constitution does not require the president to delay action until some theoretical end stage of planning, when the precise time, place, and manner of an attack become clear.

Look, the ACLU is right to raise questions and seek a public debate. And I admit that this whole thing makes me uncomfortable. But so too would the prospect of allowing someone like U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki—leader of Yemen’s al-Qaeda who was killed in a drone strike last September—to plot terrorist attacks with impunity in some faraway land and live to tell about his successes.  Al-Qaeda, after all, is at war with us and we with it.

NBC’s Pete Williams characterized Attorney General Eric Holder’s position this way:

The Fifth Amendment provides that no one can be “deprived of life” without due process of law.  But that due process, Holder said, doesn’t necessarily come from a court.

“Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security.  The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process,” the attorney general said.

Holder said a U.S. citizen can legally be targeted in a foreign country if that person is “a senior leader of al-Qaida or associated forces,” and is actively involved in planning to kill Americans.  Killing would be justified if the person poses an imminent threat of a violent attack against the U.S. and cannot easily be captured.

The key phrase here is “in a foreign country.” The expedient of obtaining a search warrant and the necessity of safeguarding other civil rights are not practical in such situations and the Constitution should not hamstring the government to such an extent that it cannot act to protect Americans from terrorists, even if the terrorists happen to be U.S. citizens living and plotting abroad.

Holder said,

Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide, it may not always be feasible to capture a U.S. citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack. In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force.

The one caveat I would offer, I’m assuming in line with at least some civil libertarians, would be that the action should be reviewable after the fact by a special court that could examine classified documents, that court applying some rule of reason in determining if the authorities initiating the action acted prudently and judiciously and within the laws of war.

The Triumph Of Leading From Behind

“To rid the world of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Moammar Qaddafi within six months: if Obama were a Republican, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now.”

—conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan

Anyone who has followed politics this year, particularly Obama’s policy on Libya, knows very well the criticism of that policy, some fair and some, well, ridiculously unfair. 

But now that Gaddafi’s bloody corpse has become an Internet sensation, it appears that the policy has been vindicated and that “leading from behind” and tactical patience is not a bad way, at least in this case, to end the career of a nasty dictator.

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