By Ruth Conniff
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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder just gave a pathetic rationale for allowing the President of the United States to bump off a U.S. citizen.
In his speech to the law school of Northwestern University, Holder essentially defined away the charge that the Obama Administration was engaging in assassination. And he did some other semantic gymnastics to justify this insidious policy.
Like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Holder hyped the danger the United States is in right now, erroneously comparing it to the existential threat we faced in JFK’s time.
Holder also embarrassingly bragged that Osama bin Laden was “brought to justice.” For the leading law enforcement officer of the United States to say that executing an unarmed, surrounded person is the same as bringing that person to “justice” is, in itself, appalling.
But more appalling were the word games Holder played in making the case for the President to order the killing of U.S. citizens. “Some have called such operations ‘assassinations.’ They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced,” argued Holder. “Assassinations are unlawful killings.” But the ones the Obama Administration have carried out and might carry out in the future are lawful, he said. Therefore, they can’t be called assassinations. This isn’t logic; this is tautology.
“The U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of Al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful,” he asserted. He alluded to Congressional approval for such action in the Authorization for Use of Military Force right after 9/11 and the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama signed at the end of last year. Holder also invoked the Constitution and the international legal doctrine of self-defense as cover.
His rationale hinges on the claim “that the individual poses an imminent threat.” But then he goes to some lengths to imply that the threat doesn’t have to be imminent. He is forced to go to these lengths because it would have been difficult to prove that Anwar Al-Awlaki, whom Obama rubbed out on September 30, posed an imminent threat since the imam functioned primarily as an Al Qaeda propagandist and indoctrinator, though he may have had some operational role. Even more difficult to rationalize is the death of Samir Khan, whom the United States murdered in that same attack. Khan was a U.S. citizen in his twenties who acted as an editor of an Al Qaeda paper. Similarly, Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, born in Denver, whom the United States murdered in an attack on October 14, did not appear to be engaged in plotting an imminent attack on the United States.
So how did Holder get around the imminence problem? By suggesting that imminence actually doesn’t matter. “The evaluation of whether an individual presents an ‘imminent threat’ incorporates considerations of the relevant window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States.” Of course, the “window of opportunity to act” has nothing to do with how imminent the threat actually is—just whether the U.S. military or the CIA has a good shot at the person. The other two criteria here don’t really deal with imminence, either, but with the potential severity of future attacks. Holder concludes his slippery reasoning this way: “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.”
So, actually, forget about imminence, Holder ultimately says, as the hinge falls off his case.
Holder makes two other sleazy arguments. First, he says that the U.S. citizen whom the President orders killed actually receives “due process.” He claims that the President himself gives the victim due process ahead of time by determining that he is a legitimate target. “ ‘Due process’ and ‘judicial process’ are not one and the same,” he asserts. “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” And then he explains how “the conduct and management of national security operations are core functions of the Executive Branch” and how “only the Executive Branch” has the necessary information to make these determinations. Call it what you want, but that ain’t due process.
Second, Holder tries to make us feel at ease with this extraordinary assertion of power by saying there is “robust oversight” of the President. What is that “robust oversight,” pray tell? “The Executive Branch regularly informs the appropriate members of Congress.”
That is not exactly a check or a balance.
Attorney General Holder and President Obama have taken the United States down a tyrannical path with this policy of assassinating U.S. citizens. And no amount of legalistic mumbo-jumbo can justify it.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Don’t Lower the Corporate Tax Rate."
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