Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99

Op-Eds

News Opinion Op-Eds

Killing terrorists, then and now

An unsigned and undated Justice Department white paper, obtained by NBC News, reports The New York Times, "... is the most detailed analysis yet to come into public view regarding the Obama legal team's views about the lawfulness of killing, without a trial, an American citizen who executive branch officials decide is an operational leader of Al Qaeda or one of its allies."

The proviso is they must pose "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States." If "an informed, high-level official" of the government decides they are a threat, the paper says, and if capture is not feasible, they may be killed.

There hasn't been a huge outcry from those on the left who attacked President George W. Bush for his doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists. Recall, too, the vitriol directed at Vice President Dick Cheney for defending "enhanced interrogation" techniques on suspected terrorists in order to obtain information that might prevent new attacks against Americans.

The unclassified paper comes from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which, according to the Times, provided justification for killing the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki, born in New Mexico, was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

The white paper cites a national right to self-defense in wartime, but goes a step further. As summarized by The New York Times: "(It) emphasizes that the decision to kill a citizen in certain circumstances is not one in which courts should play any role, asserting that judges should not restrain the executive branch in making tactical judgments about when to use force against a senior al Qaeda leader."

Weren't some conservatives who made the same argument during the Bush administration criticized in certain newspaper editorials, and by liberal commentators and the Hollywood elite?

The white paper says that if a target poses an imminent threat to the U.S., and cannot be captured, the strike "would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles." It goes on to read, "A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination. In the Department's view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat ... would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban."

The American Civil Liberties Union has been consistent with both the Bush and Obama administrations. It strongly -- and wrongly in my view -- criticized President Bush for his anti-terrorism policies. Reacting to the publication of the white paper, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, called it "a profoundly disturbing document." "It's hard to believe," she added, "that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances." She characterized it as "... a stunning overreach of executive authority."

She may have a point. One that should be debated in Congress. Appropriate committees should invite or, if necessary, subpoena the person or persons, who wrote the document. U.S. citizens should know what kind of action constitutes "imminent threat." At present, the government's definition is a little cryptic.

Given the way some criminal lawyers have "gamed" the U.S. court system to free hardened criminals, the president might be justified in this approach, but the larger question of how much authority he should be allowed to have in these circumstances and whether U.S. citizenship alone should be enough to guarantee due process when there is substantial evidence someone is involved in plots to kill other Americans, is a subject worthy of congressional consideration.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. Readers may email him at tmseditors@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Bridging the gap between hopelessness and hope
    Bridging the gap between hopelessness and hope

    It was 50 years ago this month that President Lyndon Johnson traveled to a one-room school house in Stonewall, Texas, where he attended classes, to sign the most expansive piece of federal education legislation ever enacted — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. ESEA was a key part of the...

  • Taking the early presidential plunge
    Taking the early presidential plunge

    With Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio now in active competition for their parties' 2016 presidential nominations, it's guaranteed that voters will be subjected to one of the longest preludes to the actual election yet recorded.

  • Maryland agencies should bid their projects fairly
    Maryland agencies should bid their projects fairly

    This winter, Gov. Larry Hogan made a critical move toward improving how Maryland selects its contractors. Faced with several questionable contracts up for approval by the Board of Public Works, the governor joined with Comptroller Peter Franchot to reject proposals that seemed too expensive or...

  • Recipe for a good life (Note: It's hard and messy)
    Recipe for a good life (Note: It's hard and messy)

    It is a rare privilege, I think, to be privy to the thinking of people, great or small, while they are wrestling with their conscience.

  • Hungry kids can't learn
    Hungry kids can't learn

    If you know me, you know that cake is my life. But as much as I'd love to eat sweets for breakfast every morning, I know I need healthy food to fuel my day. Whether your day involves shaping a cake into a crazy scene from Jaws like mine, working at a bank or fighting fires, we all need breakfast....

  • An ode to Baltimore's grocery stores
    An ode to Baltimore's grocery stores

    The day before our last major snow storm, I went to Trader Joe's to stock up. While some offerings were sparse, they were completely out of kale and bottled water. Not too many years ago, before a major storm, stores typically would run out of bread and milk. Not only have our food tastes changed,...

Comments
Loading

63°