Last week, NBC News published a leaked U.S. Justice Department “white paper” that seeks to supply a legal rationale for the targeted killing, without a trial, of an American citizen believed to be a “senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force … who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”
Facing pressure from the public, President Barack Obama on Wednesday supplied the Senate Intelligence Committee with a classified memo — a brief of the documents whose aim is to illustrate just why the administration’s actions are legal.
This “white paper” was provided to U.S. senators last summer after they requested the Justice Department provide a rationale behind the killing of American citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, who led a self-described “media jihad.” The “white paper” was, however, merely a substitute for a more detailed, classified memo that the Justice Department has kept hidden from Congress — the one in which Obama turned over last week.
Certainly, it would be irresponsible to restrict the military from killing an American citizen that posed a real threat to the nation. American citizenship, while guaranteeing a great number of rights, cannot be used to shield people who actively seek to inflict harm on the United States.
It would be equally irresponsible, however, to accept this paper’s combination of vague protocol and rejection of judicial review. Though the intentions of the administration are sincere, the actual details surrounding the legality of the killing are blurry.
A statement by the American Civil Liberties Union called the document “a stunning overreach of executive authority,” which is an accurate description of a program that enables the executive branch to act as the judge, jury and executioner of American citizens.
The paper requires that “an informed, high-level official” determine that the targeted American citizen “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Not only does the paper fail to accurately describe who this “official” would be, it stops short of providing any detail about how the decision of the official would be reviewed. Further, the paper defines “imminent threat” so loosely that it is robbed of any meaning. The document asserts that leaders of al-Qaida and “associated forces” — another ambiguous term — are constantly plotting against the U.S. and, therefore, pose an imminent threat at all times.
In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, which the paper cites, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution “most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches [of government] when individual liberties are at stake.”
Yet this paper declares that any judicial oversight or review would be improper, thus immunizing the executive branch from being held responsible for wrongful deaths.
Indeed, the flimsy logic suggests that the Justice Department was trying to dig up a legal basis for a decision that had already been made.
In public, it has never been officially acknowledged that the White House authorized the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki. And it was only last year that the Obama administration acknowledged that it has a targeted killing program with drones. It is a far cry from Obama’s promise that his administration would be “the most open and transparent” in history.
In a proper exercise of its right to oversight, a bipartisan group of senators recently threatened to reject Obama’s nominees for CIA director and defense secretary unless they received access to the secret documents. To truly gain legal legitimacy for these activities, Obama must not forget that though he is the leader of the free world, he still does not hold autonomous power, and Congress is a controlling branch of the government.
Without our concrete system of checks and balances, future leaders will be able to abuse the power given to them. Obama must respect the power of Congress and the Supreme Court and they, in turn, will respect his authority. If Congress is ignored, the precedent this would set for future administrations is disturbing: In times of war, the power of the president need not be checked.
Though Obama handed over the papers, it was only after facing pressure from Congress, the media and the public. It is time that our government ceases to keep secrets from its citizens and explains their actions. After all, if you have done nothing wrong, why all the secrets?
Noah Zucker is a freshman majoring in political science.