Thursday, October 6, 2011

President Obama, and the assassination of an American citizen

Ben and I talk about the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in this week's Scripps Howard column. Rather than do our usual point-counterpoint thing we did something new and rare for us: We agreed, and combined a single column explaining our shared civil liberties concerns. An excerpt:
How was al-Awlaki marked for death? According to the Washington Post, the Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of al-Awlaki. Reuters reports that al-Awlaki was then targeted by a secret White House committee -- and that the president's role in ordering the decision is "fuzzy."

If killing al-Awlaki was justified, then why is both the process and the justification for this killing secret? As the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf observed, "Obama hasn't just set a new precedent about killing Americans without due process. He has done so in a way that deliberately shields from public view the precise nature of the important precedent he has set."

There is a precedent for letting the government operate quietly on matters of national security, while ensuring a minimal level of due process. In 1978, Congress -- reacting to Watergate-era scandals -- established the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, empowering the judicial branch to monitor and approve of wiretapping against suspected foreign intelligence agents in the United States. That court has rarely denied a wiretapping warrant, but it has served as the public's check against executive branch overreach. That's an example Congress might contemplate anew.

Perhaps al-Awlaki deserved to die. But the best way to ensure the government doesn't abuse its power -- or use it later on merely to silent inconvenient critics -- is to provide checks, balances, and some level of transparency.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Joel and Ben,

Thank you for a thoughtful discussion of this unfortunate turn in our collective and Presidential history.