Drones: Obama as ‘judge, jury, and executioner’

The controversial drone-warfare program has killed up to 3,000 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen since President Obama took office.

In his confirmation hearings last week, John Brennan perfectly articulated President Obama’s justification for using drones to kill suspected terrorists, said David Rohde in The New York Times. Brennan offered up lots of “right-sounding assurances—but little transparency.” Brennan is Obama’s pick to be the next CIA director, and also the architect of the controversial drone-warfare program that has killed up to 3,000 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen since Obama took office. Among those killed have been the U.S.-born al Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son, and an unknown number of innocent civilians. Before the Senate, Brennan vigorously defended the drone program, but provided only the general reassurance that “we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.” That’s not nearly good enough, said Glenn Greenwald in Guardian.co.uk. Like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Obama has deemed the entire world “a global battlefield,” where, according to a recently leaked White House memo, he has authority to kill anyone—including American citizens—deemed to be an “associated force” of al Qaida. No formal charge needs to be made, no trial needs to be held. Obama has claimed for himself the “radical and dangerous power” to act as “accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner.”

You civil libertarians need to climb down from your ivory towers, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. In 2001, Congress explicitly gave the president broad powers to “use all necessary and appropriate force” to capture or kill terrorists who murdered 3,000 Americans on 9/11 or who would attack us again. While we would prefer to see more terrorists captured and interrogated, their execution by drone strike is both “legal and necessary to protect America.” Obama can’t send police to arrest guys like al-Awlaki in Yemen and read him his rights, said Gary Schmitt in WeeklyStandard.com. Is it really an assault on the Constitution to say that when a U.S. citizen flees the country and gets promoted to “senior leader” of a terrorist group sworn to the mass murder of Americans, he has forfeited his right to a jury trial?

That he has, said David Brooks in The New York Times. But still, giving any president unbounded authority to kill whomever he likes makes me nervous—especially since drone strikes are “so easy, hidden, and abstract.” America’s Founders deeply distrusted unchecked power, and for good reason. As we move uneasily into the drone age, our government needs to set up an “independent judicial panel to review the kill lists.” That’s a very sensible precaution, said Michael Tomasky in TheDailyBeast.com,and Brennan testified that Obama is considering it. Having a secret court overseeing the drone program won’t fully satisfy the critics, since there will still be no public charges or trials, but it will at least satisfy the valid concern “that the president alone shouldn’t have such power.”

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How times change one’s perspective, said Rich Lowry in Politico.com. In 2007, then-Sen. Obama lambasted the Bush administration for trampling the Constitution in the war on terrorism. “The law,’’ Obama righteously thundered, “is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers. Justice is not arbitrary.” Now that he feels the full weight of protecting the country from terrorism, Obama has adopted a view of presidential war powers that sounds quite like…Dick Cheney’s. This presents a real intellectual challenge to the many Democrats who view Obama as a hero, but Bush and Cheney as tyrants. “How to resolve the contradiction? Easy. Conclude that they were wrong the first time.”

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