John Brennan, newly confirmed director of the CIA, assured Americans in a speech last year on targeted killing that there is "absolutely nothing casual" about the process of targeted killing, including that of American citizens. He included in this the use of remotely controlled drone airplanes that have been used to strike and kill people identified as al-Qaida terrorists.
After all, Brennan reminded the public, President Barack Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who assured the world in his acceptance speech that "all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to standards that govern the use of force."
So what we have is an executive branch official telling the public, "trust me": The executive branch has a legal, fair and rigorous process for undertaking targeted killings, but cannot give too many details due to national security concerns. This explanation should not be accepted so quickly.
Recently, NBC News released a 16-page unsigned and undated government "white paper" that asserts the lawfulness of targeting a U.S. citizen for death. The document posits that if "an informed, high-level official" decides that a U.S. citizen — who is a "senior operational leader" in al-Qaida or an affiliate — poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and capture is not feasible, the targeting is legal.
Just before Brennan's Senate confirmation hearing for the CIA, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee were finally allowed to briefly review the full memorandum outlining the executive branch's legal argument. Allowing the Senate to see the memorandum is a step in the right direction, even though it came years too late. It was only after Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster that Attorney General Eric Holder gave a definitive "no" answer to whether the president has the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.
Very few have the audacity to defend or rationalize the blatant hypocrisy by President Obama who, as a senator, often criticized the lack of transparency in the Bush administration when it came to enhanced interrogation techniques. This is a quarrel not worth having —- those who become president quickly become aware of the realities of the world, and the serious threat terrorism poses to America.
The executive branch should be entitled to some leeway when it comes to defending the country. The notion that American citizens can be killed in combat without due process (or judicial process) is not novel. American citizens fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War were not afforded extra protection under the law. The idea that combatants can be targeted for death is not of recent origin either. Just as Osama bin Laden and Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the orchestrator of the attack on Pearl Harbor, were targeted so too can high-level enemy combatants who are U.S. citizens.
Targeted killing is a modification of assassination (which is illegal) that brings it into the legal realm, when justified by law and evidence. Proof of U.S. citizens' participation in terrorism makes them legitimate targets. Fair enough.
Where the debate really lies, and where Americans should make their opinions known, is how much power we are willing to give exclusively to the executive branch. Is it wise to have the executive branch serve as investigator, arbitrator and executioner all in one?
The Obama administration must find a way to convincingly communicate with the American public that when it targets a U.S. citizen, or any person for that matter, that decision is based on credible evidence and no other non-lethal measures are available to capture the person.
The American government was built on checks and balances. There are ways to review decisions with courts like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that preserve the integrity and covertness of operations. Ultimately it is up to the public to demand how much the executive branch should reveal about the drone program and who can be killed. Public reaction has been slow, but as the narrative of the drone program has unraveled, the opposition to keeping the status quo has grown.
J. Brian Meskill, 25, of Berlin is a third-year student at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly indentified Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto as a general.