Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
New light, and not a flattering light, has been shed on the Obama Administration's sweeping claim that it can assassinate U.S. citizens abroad.
Michael Isikoff of NBC News got hold of a 16-page Justice Department memo justifying the policy.
It's an amazingly disturbing memo, and it reads as if John Yoo from Bush's Justice Department or David Addington from Cheney's office wrote it, replete with euphemisms, such as when it asserts that the fact that someone is a U.S. citizen "would not immunize him from a lethal operation" or prevent him from being "subjected to lethal targeting" -- meaning, the President can still kill him, under certain circumstances, if he's a "senior operational leader" of Al Qaeda or "an associated force."
It should be noted, at the start, that even the Justice Department's own rationale does not cover the drone killing of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar Al-Awlaki. While the Obama Administration has long claimed that Anwar Al-Awlaki was a "senior operational leader," it hasn't -- and can't -- make the credible claim that his 16-year-old son was such a leader. The Obama Administration nevertheless rubbed out the teenager, a U.S. citizen, two weeks after it killed his father.
The memo says that the executive branch can go ahead and bump off a U.S. citizen if a "high-level official of the U.S. government" -- not even, necessarily, the President of the United States -- determines that this person is an "imminent threat" and that it is "infeasible" to capture the person and that the attack is "consistent with" the principles of the laws of war.
It then defines "imminent" in a way that stretches the word to ludicrous limits. "The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interest will take place in the immediate future," it says. That's Orwellian double speak if ever I heard it. Basically, it argues that Al Qaeda leaders are "continually planning attacks" so whenever there is a good opportunity to kill them, the U.S. should take it. That's an argument. But it's not an argument in defense of "imminence."
It give short shrift to "feasibility of capture," dispatching that criterion in a mere three sentences. "Capture would not be feasible if it could not be physically effectuated during the relevant window of opportunity or if the relevant country were to decline to consent to a capture operation," it says. And it also cites "undue risk to U.S. personnel."
When it gets to the laws of war, it does other gymnastics. Noting that the Hague Convention says "it is especially forbidden to kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army," it then whisks this prohibition away.
In another sleight of hand, it says that these hits would not be assassinations because they're done in self-defense.
It also argues that killing a U.S. citizen does not violate that citizen's Fourth or Fifth Amendment rights.
And then, on top of it all, it asserts that the Executive Branch, and the Executive Branch alone, has the right to say whether these actions are kosher or not.
Says the memo: "There exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations."
Talk about being above the law!
These are the same arguments that Richard Nixon made and George W. Bush made.
There is something in the air in the Oval Office that tends to turn the occupant into Richard Nixon.
It's happening now to Barack Obama.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story "Obama's So-So Speech on Immigration."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter.