Who would have thought that within President Barack Obama beats the heart of a civil rights antediluvian?
Could Obama, beloved of the American Civil Liberties Union, be guilty of harboring thoughts of calling down a fatal drone attack on an American citizen on U.S. soil without benefit of trial?
I never heard him say so. And I doubt that he would. Yet, the suspicion that he would do such an astonishing thing has raised one of the most consequential constitutional debates of the decade: What powers does the commander in chief possess to conduct war to defend American citizens and how assured is the right of U.S. citizens to enjoy justice under the law, as they are guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.
Battles over the balance of constitutionally endowed citizen rights and government powers have been raging since the republic's creation. Like the constitutional debate over gun rights, those debates seem never-ending. But unlike gun rights, I think this one has been resolved. At least for now and without robed justices handing down an edict. At least, it is hoped so.
A short recap: At first the debate centered on the question of whether the president had authority to use a drone — an unmanned, remotely guided and armed aircraft — to kill a U.S citizen who is an enemy combatant abroad, without trial. We know of only one that has: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
And hurray for that. To oversimplify, the weight of the evidence in my view is that the president can. But whether a citizen on American soil who is an enemy combatant can be killed in similar manner without due process and solely on the authority of the executive branch of the government is a different question requiring separate analysis.
For many Americans, including myself, it's a stunning violation of the right of due process. But the suspicion unfortunately was raised that the Obama administration might engage in such unconscionable conduct by its hesitant and muddled responses to questions over whether it can posed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others. Good for Paul for asking, whatever offense to Senate comity he caused.
The administration's responses amounted to pettifogging in which a clear "no" was not discernible. Suspicion about the administration's intent has been fed by White House actions that have corroded its credibility: Its self-serving and deceitful explanations for the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack that killed four Americans. And its determination, as revealed by a leaked Agriculture Department field office memo, to make the budget sequester as painful as possible for Americans. Both of those reprehensible actions were done for political purpose.
Administration officials eventually were forced to issue written letters with greater clarity. Newly confirmed CIA director John Brennan wrote Paul on March 5 that the CIA absolutely cannot and will not conduct such operations on American soil. And after too much hemming and hawing, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote: "Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on U.S. soil? The answer to that is no."
Still, Ryan Goodman, co-chair of the New York University Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, found a loophole: The promise not to use drones to kill Americans on U.S. soil as long as they were not "engaged in combat." "By declining to specify what it means to be 'engaged in combat,' the letter does not foreclose the possible scenario — however hypothetical — of a military drone strike, against a United States citizen, on American soil," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
And so it goes. It says something about the Obama administration that a part of the president's base does not support him on this — posing the same kind of potential split in the Democratic Party as it does to Republicans. But the politics are so much less important than the substance.
Would Obama in the face of such utter denials be fool enough to launch such an attack? Only if he'd want to face impeachment, as demanded by a misled and outraged public.
Dennis Byrne, a Chicago writer, blogs in The Barbershop on chicagonow.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun