Assassinating Americans

Obama has declared he has authority to eliminate U.S. citizens if they are terrorist suspects. Conor Friedersdorf on the frightening consequences of unchecked executive power to kill.

02.07.10 11:05 PM ET

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair revealed something stunning last week: The Obama administration believes it is empowered to assassinate American citizens. “We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community,” Admiral Blair told Congress. “If we think direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

Perhaps we’ll learn more about how they decide which Americans to kill in coming weeks. It may be as responsible a death panel as the world has ever known!

Of course, executive branch death sentences violate the Fifth Amendment prohibition on depriving someone of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” but it’s so passé to invoke the Constitution when terrorism is at issue. Or so President Obama seems to think. He has personally authorized at least one drone attack against an American citizen who is alleged to be a cleric associated with al Qaeda, assuring us via subordinates that these decisions are not taken lightly—there is no higher hurdle in the executive branch than direct presidential approval—but offering no mechanism for another branch of government to check his decisions, and few details save that the targeted citizen must pose an imminent threat to U.S. interests. Call it the Iraq War standard.

Is our polity losing it? In proposing that middle-aged citizens be counseled by medical advisers to prepare for end-of-life decisions, the president is widely accused of supporting “death panels”—a charge trumpeted loudly by select conservatives and repeated endlessly by the national media, though avoided by many serious Republicans.

Mere weeks later, it is revealed that President Obama presides over an actual death panel, shrouded in mystery except for the fact that it literally orders the killing of United States citizens, absent any oversight. Existing hit lists include at least three Americans.

And the response?


Folks who claim the president is a closet radical bent on irrevocably transforming the republic are silent when faced with the most extreme power he has claimed. Perhaps their strange deference is owed to the fact that George W. Bush authorized the CIA and the military to kill American citizens given strong evidence they were tied to terrorist actions. (As far as I can ascertain there is no confirmed case of the Bush administration assassinating an American citizen accused of terrorism.)

In any case, the left is now far more derelict in protecting and defending the Constitution. The Democratic Party presently controls both houses of Congress, and liberal interest groups are best positioned to influence the White House. For what are they waiting? “Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with terrorism,” Glenn Greenwald writes. “Amazingly, the Bush Administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals… produced intense controversy for years. Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering Americans killed… produce at least as much controversy?”

Yes, it should!

Insofar as I know, everyone on the current hit list is a terrorist bastard, and President Obama is almost certainly never going to become a tyrant. But neither is he going to fulfill what was his greatest promise: reasserting prudent limits on the presidency, an office just recently a heartbeat away from Dick Cheney. Is our current president unable to imagine a future Oval Office occupant he trusts even less? That this power helps us to eliminate a few dangerous men in the short term hardly justifies the imprudent folly of indulging an unchecked power so extreme it can only end in corruption.

Though rare, American terrorists are arguably the most potent weapons in the arsenal of our enemies; it is always that way with traitors, who are uniquely positioned to target their country in the most damaging ways. The Founders nevertheless prescribed that “no person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on confession in open Court.” Can there be any doubt that it is imprudent to kill alleged traitors without even bothering to convict them?

Extra-judicial killings are now an avowed practice of the Obama administration. Perhaps we’ll learn more about how they decide which Americans to kill in coming weeks. It may be as responsible a death panel as the world has ever known! Unknowable is how the next president, if so empowered, will decide which Americans to kill.

How many men can run a death panel before it spirals out of control?

Conor Friedersdorf, a Daily Beast columnist, also writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.