From America, With Love: Targeted Killings of Americans Without Trial
This Valentine’s Day, most Americans will be out at a fancy dinner with their significant other, or at home gorging themselves on chocolate and other comfort foods. Unfortunately, some Americans might instead find themselves receiving a “gift” they weren’t quite expecting: a bomb sent courtesy of Uncle Sam and the U.S. military.
That’s because the Obama administration, through the Justice Department, has approved of targeted killings of American citizens without due process if they are members of terrorist organizations but are outside of active combat zones like Afghanistan. The document that details this horrifying process is based on a classified memo on targeted killings of U.S. citizens prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The document states that the killing of an American is legal if: (1) [A]n informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is infeasible and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
What’s so worrying about this whole procedure, besides the dubious legal grounds that the killings are justified upon, is the ambiguity regarding when and how Americans can be classified as “imminent threats” and eliminated.
Senator Ron Wyden, a senior member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, raises important questions when he asks how much evidence the president needs to decide that a particular American is part of a terrorist group, or whether the president has to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender, or even if the president can order intelligence agencies or the military to kill an American who is inside the United States.
Because the president hasn’t regularly consulted with Congress on the matter, the Obama administration has essentially failed to put forth a legal justification for its decisions concerning whether an American citizen can be killed without a trial. As a result, the president appears to be operating outside of American law when he orders such targeted killings, an offense that at the very least requires intense congressional oversight and a halt to the killings until they can be deemed to be legal.
This isn’t to say that President Obama is the first president to order the killing of an American citizen without a trial. Senator Wyden notes that President Lincoln’s killing of rebelling American citizens without a trial during the Civil War was warranted, but only because he consulted with Congress to determine on what grounds those citizens could be killed. President Obama, much to the dismay of the civil rights activists that supported him in both presidential elections, has failed to do just that. Instead, the President is operating a secret system that allows a select few people, including unelected advisors and bureaucrats, to decide when to kill Americans without due process.
The consequences of these actions aren’t just theoretical, as several Americans, including a 16 year-old boy, have already been killed by these attacks. While some of these people may in fact be just as guilty and dangerous as our government claims them to be, they still had a right to a fair trial as an American citizen and a human being.
This secretive and deadly program, and the justifications for its existence, is a worrying development for the relationship between the executive branch, the judiciary, Congress, and American citizens. We already have an established judicial system to handle matters of illegal behavior by American citizens, and when the government chooses to ignore this system for the sake of military efficiency the very rights that our military was created to defend are jeopardized.
The president has a duty to explain himself to Congress, and Congress must work with the president to create a legal foundation for future attacks that is based upon our constitution and laws. No longer should President Obama be able to operate in the shadows; instead, he must be subject to the bright light of transparency just like his predecessors were.
Matthew Bulger is the legislative associate for the American Humanist Association.