I wish I could be a better sport about this rapid erosion of our liberties. It would be nice to watch the convention and feel inspired. But, you know, this:
Barack Obama’s administration is still insisting in court that its worst-kept secret—the use of unmanned aircraft to target and kill suspected terrorists—is classified information. But that didn’t stop the president from openly defending the program to CNN reporter Jessica Yellin in an interview that aired Wednesday. Here’s an excerpt from Obama’s remarks, transcribed by Chris Woods at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:
It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States. And this is an example of where I think there has been some misreporting. Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence. But a lot of terrorist networks that target the United States, the most dangerous ones operate in very remote regions and it’s very difficult to capture them. And we’ve got to make sure that in whatever operations we conduct, we are very careful about avoiding civilian casualties, and in fact there are a whole bunch of situations where we will not engage in operations if we think there’s going to be civilian casualties involved.
So we have an extensive process with a lot of checks, a lot of eyes looking at it. Obviously as president I’m ultimately responsible for decisions that are made by the administration. But I think what the American people need to know is the seriousness with which we take both the responsibility to keep them safe, but also the seriousness with which we take the need for us to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.
As Woods notes, while the administration has tried to keep its “license to kill” secret, this interview actually lays out in some detail what the administration thinks the legal parameters actually are: It can target suspected terrorists with lethal force when they are in “remote regions” where they are difficult to capture, force is necessary to “stop them from carrying out plots,” and civilian casualties won’t be significant. Still, these factors are all evaluated by a secret process within the executive branch, rather than the kind of public and adversarial process used to, say, put someone in prison for life.
Obama also specifically addressed the issue of targeting American citizens—like Anwar al-Awlaki—although he did not mention al-Awlaki by name.
I think there’s no doubt that when an American has made the decision to affiliate himself with al Qaeda and target fellow Americans, that there is a legal justification for us to try and stop them from carrying out plots. What is also true though is that as an American citizen, they are subject to the protections of the constitution and due process.
Understand that when Obama says “due process,” he is referring not to courts, but to an internal executive branch review. Following Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech in March explaining how “due process” here means that national security officials evaluate the evidence against an individual before asking higher-ups for permission to vaporize them, comedian Stephen Colbert quipped that “due process just means there’s a process that you do.”