For those of us who remember Eric Holder and Barack Obama decrying waterboarding of three known foreign terrorists who provided information that saved American lives and played a role in the killing of Osama bin Laden, it is with some interest to hear the attorney general said the U.S. government has the right to order the killing of American citizens overseas if they are senior al-Qaeda leaders who pose an imminent terrorist threat and cannot reasonably be captured.
“Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen — even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaeda in a foreign land — is among the gravest that government leaders can face,” Holder said in a speech at Northwestern University’s law school in Chicago. “The American people can be — and deserve to be — assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws.”
As the Washington Post points out, Holder’s discussion of lethal force against U.S. citizens did not mention any individual by name, but his address was clearly animated by the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior figure in al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September.
The attorney general said the president is not required by the Constitution to delay action until some “theoretical end stage of planning — when the precise time, place and manner of an attack become clear.” Holder further argued that a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to “due process” and that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against depriving a citizen of his or her life without due process of law does not mandate a “judicial process.”
“Where national security operations are at stake, due process takes into account the realities of combat,” Holder said. He added that the question of “whether the capture of a U.S.-citizen terrorist is feasible is a fact-specific, and potentially time-sensitive, question.”
“Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide,” he continued, “it may not always be feasible to capture a United States-citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack. In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force.” Holder added that “because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law . . . and our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields of Afghanistan.”
As for labeling such operations as “assassinations,” Holder said, “They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced,” the attorney general insisted. “Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self-defense against a leader of al-Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the executive order banning assassination or criminal statutes.”
Holder said “it is preferable to capture suspected terrorists where feasible — among other reasons, so that we can gather valuable intelligence from them — but we must also recognize that there are instances where our government has the clear authority — and, I would argue, the responsibility — to defend the United States through the appropriate and lawful use of lethal force.”
About the attorney general’s comments, I have several reactions.
The first is that Holder and the man he serves, Barack Obama, continue to discover that governing is a good deal harder than ignorantly popping off during elections, which they did plenty of in 2008. They didn’t know nearly as much as they thought they did and were not nearly as wise as they thought they were.
My second reaction is that Holder and Obama’s positions are morally indefensible, at least based on their previous standards. How on earth could they bemoan Enhanced Interrogation Techniques of three terrorists who (a) survived the ordeal and (b) elicited information that saved many innocent American lives while giving the green light to kill American citizens overseas, and to do so without the benefit of a trial?
A third reaction: Where is the outrage of the left? You remember the left – men and women who wrote and spoke out almost on a daily basis that EITs were staining America’s reputation, a violation of human rights and international law, and a moral offense of the highest order. Yet here we have Obama’s attorney general defending the targeted killing of American citizens. This shows you how deeply partisan, and ultimately insincere, the concerns were for many who feigned moral outrage during the Bush years.
When he ran for president, it was clear Obama was a man of astonishing moral arrogance. Now we can add moral hypocrite to his faults.