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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, The Divine Right of President Obama?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Imagine this: a president and his top officials as self-professed assassins -- and proud of it, even attempting to gain political capital from it.  It's not that American presidents have never been associated with assassination attempts before.  At a National Security Council meeting, Dwight D. Eisenhower personally ordered the CIA to "eliminate" Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, then feared as a future "Castro of Africa."  "After a dead silence of fifteen seconds," Tim Weiner tells us in Legacy of Ashes, his history of the CIA, "the meeting went on."  And the Kennedy brothers were evidently involved in at least one attempt to kill Fidel Castro, while the CIA of Lyndon Johnson's era mounted a massive assassination program in Vietnam.  Still, in those days, something dark and distasteful clung to the idea and presidents preferred to maintain what was called "plausible deniability" when it came to such efforts. (In 1981, by Executive Order, President Ronald Reagan actually banned assassination by the U.S. government.)

Now, top officials connected to the White House proudly leak details about their ongoing efforts to use drones to assassinate obscure suspected terrorists in the backlands of the planet.  They take pride in comparing their activities to a religious calling.  They want the public to know that they and the president spend significant time and effort on such "targeted killings."  The most recent case to see the light of day is the prospective assassination of an American citizen and suspected "al-Qaeda facilitator," evidently in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan.  When it comes to this possible future assassination, they seem eager to emphasize via leaks the care they are taking in preparing the way.

In the process, they have produced legalistic documents so secret that they can't be shown to the public, though their existence and import can indeed be publicized.  These justify to their satisfaction the killing of Americans without what once would have been considered "due process" or any role whatsoever for the actual legal system.  The president and his top officials are ready at a moment's notice to discuss in public, with a legalistic turn of mind and a finicky attention to bureaucratic detail, whether such killings can properly be carried out in the U.S. as they are abroad, or whether the angels of death should be the U.S. military or the CIA -- as if this were of any legally binding import. (Congress, in turn, has been balking at appropriating money for the military to take over more of the CIA's drone killings.)  No less striking, the media is by now almost instantly bored with such reports, which prove, at best, to be minor one-day ripples in the vast tide of the news.

And in the face of all this, Americans seem to exhibit a remarkable lack of interest.  The transformation of the White House into a killing machine?  Whether any of this has anything to do with legality?  More than 12 years after the 9/11 attacks, it's evidently just everyday life in America.  That the president is our assassin-in-chief and that drones are acceptable weapons of choice in such killings are givens.  It's also a given that, in the name of American security, anything goes as long as it's wrapped in an exculpatory, feel-good legalistic package, even if it bears no actual relationship to what Americans might once have called legality.  Today, Peter Van Buren, ex-State Department whistleblower, TomDispatch regular, and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, explores the deep derangement of all this and what it means in the building of a "post-Constitutional America." Tom

Drone Killing the Fifth Amendment
How to Build a Post-Constitutional America One Death at a Time
By Peter Van Buren

Terrorism (ter-ror-ism; see also terror) n. 1. When a foreign organization kills an American for political reasons.

Justice (jus-tice) n. 1. When the United States Government uses a drone to kill an American for political reasons.

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How's that morning coffee treating you? Nice and warming? Mmmm.

While you're savoring your cup o' joe, imagine the president of the United States hunched over his own coffee, considering the murder of another American citizen. Now, if you were plotting to kill an American over coffee, you could end up in jail on a whole range of charges including -- depending on the situation -- terrorism. However, if the president's doing the killing, it's all nice and -- let's put those quote marks around it -- "legal." How do we know? We're assured that the Justice Department tells him so.  And that's justice enough in post-Constitutional America.

Through what seems to have been an Obama administration leak to the Associated Press, we recently learned that the president and his top officials believe a U.S. citizen -- name unknown to us out here -- probably somewhere in the tribal backlands of Pakistan, is reputedly planning attacks against Americans abroad. As a result, the White House has, for the last several months, been considering whether or not to assassinate him by drone without trial or due process.

Supposedly, the one thing that's held up sending in the drones is the administration's desire to make sure the kill is "legal." (Those quotes again.)

Last May, Obama gave a speech on the subject.  It was, in part, a response to growing anger in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere over the CIA's ongoing drone assassination campaigns with all their "collateral damage," and to the White House's reported "kill list." In it, he insisted that any target of the drones must pose "a continuing and imminent threat to the American people." At the time, the White House also issued a fact sheet that stated: "Lethal force must only be used to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively." While that sounds like a pretty imposing set of hurdles to leap, all of the "legal" criteria are determined in secret by the White House with advice from the Justice Department, but with no oversight or accountability.

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Even then, it turns out that the supposedly tortured deliberations of the administration are not really necessary. Despite the president's criteria, according to an unnamed administration official quoted by the Associated Press, Obama could make an exception to his policy and authorize the CIA to strike on a one-time basis, no matter what the circumstances. One way or another, it is Obama who decides who to kill and when.

Short-Term Questions

At this point, it's unclear just why the Obama administration leaked its plans in reference to this errant American abroad. After all, official after official has insisted that Edward Snowden's revelations of secret NSA documents have caused terrorists to change their communication tactics, yet the one American up to no good somewhere in the terrorist world apparently has not done so in response to the leak about his potential fate, and will remain locatable whenever needed as a target. And yet giving notice of a possible attack in advance in the media would, on the face of it, seem both counterproductive and an invitation to the very barrage of criticisms leveled by key officials at Snowden. After all, under the circumstances, an American connected with al-Qaeda wouldn't exactly have to be a Bond villain to decide to change his behavior and his location, stay indoors or outdoors more, keep off his phone for a while or trade it in for another.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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