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Death by Committee: The Federal Government’s Secret Hit List and “plausible deniability”


After the tragedy of September 11th when Then President Bush asked a joint session of Congress for authorization for the military action against Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies, I was bitterly disappointed that he did not follow the Constitution and ask for a Declaration of War. While I supported strong retribution against these enemies of western civilization that would lead to their destruction, I knew in my heart that down the road this would most likely lead to an erosion of the Constitution.

 A case in point is the a story that broke today on Reuters which revealed that the federal government has a secret panel that can decide if an American citizen abroad could be killed or captured. The panel members are composed of mid-level members of the National Security Council (NSC). Their recommendations are sent to NSC leaders (members of the President’s cabinet and heads of the intelligence agencies) for approval. These leaders can change considering different operational issues.

 This committee came to light after last week’s killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American Al Qaeda militant, in Yemen. This past Tuesday, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, when asked about the killing, responded that this process involves “going through the National Security Council, then it eventually goes to the President, but the National Security Council does the investigation, they have lawyers, they review, they look at the situation, you have input from the military, and also, we make sure that we follow international law.”  Forget about international law, what about the Constitution? I would have no issue if a Declaration of War had been declared against Al Qaeda and its allies and al-Awlaki had been killed in a military strike. The idea that the Federal Government, through an extra judicial process, can authorize the killing of American citizens abroad is chilling.

I have had disagreements with some of my fellow Libertarians who were against military tribunals for non-citizen illegal combatants captured overseas. I believe military tribunals are correct Constitutional instruments that have been used ever since the American Revolution, and they it also comply with the Geneva Convention. For my friends on the left who object to the use of military tribunals, I would remind them of Franklin Roosevelt’s use of them in the second World War against Nazi saboteurs who were caught on U.S. soil, although FDR had a stronger case since Germany and the United States were in a state of war.

 It has also been reported that under this “process,” the President is not required to personally approve the person on this hit list but the President is advised of the committee decision. If the president objects, the decision is nullified. Making the committee responsible for the selection of the persons on the list was to protect the President, one official said. Wow – talk about “plausible deniability.” Is this is what the executive branch of our republic has resorted to?

What is the criteria for being put on such a list? The Congressional use of force issued on September 14, 2001 in response to the 9-11 attacks does not give the President or anyone else in the executive branch authority to set up a list of American citizens that should be killed. If there had been a declaration of war against Al Qaeda, there would have been a legal basis to kill Anwar al-Awlaki even though he was a citizen, since he was a member of that organization.

 I am not shedding any tears for this terrorist and I am very happy that he was dispatched from this planet, but I am not in favor of having a secret executive branch hit list for American citizens either. The Administration has not, and is not planning to, make public the classified evidence that Awlaki was operationally involved in planning terrorist attacks. I think most of us can agree that the executive branch should not have this life and death extra-judicial power over American citizens, regardless of how destructive they may seem. To the supporters of this Administration, I ask: do you want this to set a precedent for future administrations that they can kill citizens without judicial warrant? What then would stop the targeted killing of Americans overseas who are critics of the government?

 I am asking myself where and when the hard questions are being asked of this Administration. When President Bush authorized the interception of telephone calls that originated from outside the country to known terror suspects and enhanced interrogation tactics for illegal non-combatants, critics blasted that Administration. Now, under the Obama Administration, there is silence; at least there was legal precedent for the wiretaps and it was passed by an act of Congress under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the majority of this act has been upheld by federal courts.

 In this warped view of some in the federal government, it is fine to have an execution list of American citizens without judicial review or executive accountability, but any enemy combatant captured on a foreign battlefield is not only be afforded rights under the Geneva Convention, but must be given jury trials.

This hypocrisy of both the Bush and Obama Administrations and their disregard of the Constitution is why we must continue to demand that it be followed.

 – Just my opinion D.B.

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