Obama’s ‘kill list’: The president as executioner-in-chief

The president has a hands-on role in deciding which of America’s terrorist enemies to target with drone strikes.

Every president has to make “grand life-and-death decisions about war and peace,” said Michael Crowley in Time.com. But Barack Obama has taken that responsibility to an unprecedented level, and become the nation’s “executioner-in-chief.” The New York Times reported last week that Obama, from the early days of his administration, took personal charge of deciding which of America’s terrorist enemies to target with the controversial drone strikes that have devastated al Qaida and become so central to U.S. counterterrorism strategy. In regular “Terror Tuesday” sessions at the White House, said Jo Becker and Scott Shane in The New York Times, Obama and his advisers pore over so-called “baseball cards” of al Qaida leaders and affiliates in Pakistan and Yemen—some of them in their teens. They weigh the threat that each suspect poses to the U.S. or to its allies against the shakiness of the evidence and the possibility of civilian casualties, before deciding whether or not to place the suspect’s name on that week’s “kill list.” Obama’s hands-on role in such tactical military decisions is “without precedent in presidential history,” but he believes he has a “moral responsibility” to make those life-or-death decisions himself.

Obama’s “kill list” is dangerously un-American, said Andrew Napolitano in Reason.com. Our Constitution is crystal clear that except in the most dire and urgent of emergencies, “the president cannot lawfully order the killing of anyone” until they’ve been found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to die, and that sentence has been upheld on appeal. This revelation puts the drone attacks on “very tenuous grounds under the laws of war,” said Scott Horton in Harper’s. Under rules adopted by this White House, the CIA counts all “military-age males” killed in a drone strike as enemy combatants, even if they’re unidentified, on the logic that if one al Qaida member is present, everyone around him is a bad guy. As a result, the CIA now claims that very few, if any, civilians are being killed in drone strikes. Given that we’re firing drones at non-uniformed people in civilian neighborhoods, that Orwellian presumption of guilt “raises serious war-crimes issues.”

Obama’s use of drones may not be smart policy, said former Undersecretary of Defense Jed Babbin in Spectator.org, and has likely damaged relations with our vital ally Pakistan beyond repair—but “it is legal.” After 9/11, Congress passed an “Authorization of Military Force” giving the president broad powers to pursue and attack the terrorist group that killed 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil. That’s what Obama is doing. Some critics are now portraying him as a “robotic killing machine,” unilaterally vaporizing people from on high, said Daniel Klaidman in TheDailyBeast.com, but the reality is far “more reassuring.” The whole point of those “Terror Tuesday” sessions is to stimulate discussion among dozens of aides and intelligence officials, encourage dissent, and make sure that we’re only taking out the right people, while keeping civilian casualties to a minimum. Even so, many of the choices Obama faces have “been brutally difficult, and he has struggled with them—sometimes turning them over in his mind again and again.”

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“The president is to be commended for his cold-bloodedness” in striking America’s enemies, said Rich Lowry in NationalReview.com. What’s glaring, though, is how the Left has changed its tune since the last administration. If it were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney condemning people to death in secret sessions, “Nancy Pelosi would have drafted the articles of impeachment herself.” The greatest hypocrisy is Obama’s, said Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post. One minute he’s “preening about how America has turned a new moral page” by ending Bush and Cheney’s policies of rendition and enhanced interrogation of terrorists. The next, he’s simply executing them “by remote control.” Killing every al Qaida member we can locate, of course, spares Obama the political headache of housing, trying, and interrogating terrorist detainees.

I don’t doubt that Obama takes these decisions seriously, said Amy Davidson in NewYorker.com. But that isn’t good enough. Our system requires that there be not only limits on executive power, but also some mechanism for accountability, which “appears to be badly lacking” in Obama’s use of drones. In essence, he has given himself the authority to snuff out people’s lives, anywhere in the world, with a stroke of the pen. That establishes a precedent for other presidents, some of whom may be less versed in the fine points of “just war” theory than Obama, and may agonize just a little bit less. “In the end we are not really being asked to trust Obama, or his niceness, but the office of the presidency. Do we?”

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