Analysis: Secret memos expose Obama's double-standard on 'targeted killings'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Where is the outrage? For all the anger over Bush-era torture policies, where is the commensurate condemnation over President Obama’s justification for killing American citizens with no due process, no transparency, and no accountability?

An administration memo uncovered by NBC reporter Michael Isikoff strips the veil from the Obama’s oft-Orwellian justification for assassinating American citizens believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force--even if there is no evidence of an imminent attack against the U.S.

Strike that: Killing suspected terrorists who happen to be American “is not an assassination,” according to the president’s Justice Department. “In the Department’s view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban.”

Oh, and disregard that part about imminent threat: Although Attorney General Eric Holder told the public in March that killing Americans could be justified if government officials determine the target poses “an imminent threat of violent attack,” his memo creates a massive loophole. It coins a chilling little phrase--“broader concept of imminence”--to absolve the government of the responsibility to find a clear and present danger.

“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 interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo reads.

This is not an abstract theory. We’re already killing our own in the name of war. Under Obama, the antiwar candidate who campaigned against Bush’s trimming of U.S. civil liberties, the United States has escalated the number of drone strikes against Qaida suspects, including deadly attacks on American citizens, such as the 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. They were U.S. citizens who had not been indicted or charged with a crime.

You might wonder whether Democrats who accused Bush of attacking the Constitution will hold Obama to a similar standard. It will also be interest to watch hawkish Republicans who oppose virtually every Obama policy: Will they fight this one?

At the very least, Congress, the media and public should be pressing for answers to some basic questions including:

1. Where does this slippery slope end? If  killing Americans with no due process is OK when their alleged crime is consorting with al-Qaida, it’s not a huge intellectual leap to give government officials the same judge-and-jury authority over other heinous acts such as mass murder, drug trafficking, and child pornography.

2. Shouldn't there be a higher standard? In the torture debate, many Americans seemed to buy the concept that extreme measures might be necessary to prevent an imminent attack against the U.S. Should the standard be higher for torture than murder?

3. What makes a targeting killing lawful? Holder told the public months ago that killing Americans can be justified if “capture is not feasible.” But the memo gives more leeway to government officials, condoning the killing of an American if U.S. troops would be put at risk in an attempted capture, for example. Why the double-speak?

4. Why the secrecy? Obama promised to run the most transparent administration of modern times, and in many ways he’s kept the pledge. But not on this life-and-death issue. A group of 11 senators, led by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, has urged Obama to release all Justice Department memos on targeting killings. There are many more, and more important, documents than the Isikoff memo that need exposure. The public deserves to know why its president, without due process or visibility, is issuing death sentences to alleged terrorists, some of them Americans. They learned today that the public statements of administration officials on this matter can't be trusted.

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