Questions about a hit job



It's amazing how little attention has been paid to the recent revelation that Barack Obama has something in common with Tony Soprano.

Ten days ago, The New York Times and The Washington Post filed extraordinary stories - based on leaks from anonymous government officials - that Obama had OK'd a CIA hit on an American citizen. Granted, this particular citizen is the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico native who currently resides in Yemen, where he's apparently aiding al Qaeda in some unspecified capacity. But this is the first time that an American president has specifically targeted an American for CIA assassination. (Back in January, there were also reports that a clandestine military unit has been compiling hit lists of American citizens.) In other words, not even George W. Bush authorized CIA hits on Americans.

The thing is, if Bush had ever put the hit on an American, you can rest assured that liberal groups, and the Washington press corps, would have demanded to know, with great specificity, how such an extrajudicial decision had been determined - and whether the decision had dangerously broadened the playing field for executive overreach.

They would have pointed out, correctly, that even the most noxious American citizens have due process protections - namely, the right to a fair trial, the right to be confronted with evidence, and the right to contest that evidence. They would have pointed out that it is unprecedented to essentially target an American for summary execution, on the basis of privately-held intelligence that has been selectively leaked to the press.

And they would've peppered the Bush White House with questions about what this hit job portended for the future. For instance: Having set such a precedent, did this mean that a president could kill anyone he wanted? Even assuming that such hits would be exceedingly rare, what's the criteria for targeting another American citizen? What kind of wrongdoing is required? What kind of evidence is required? Who is involved in the decision-making process before it reaches the president's desk? What kinds of checks and balances have been established, to ensure that the power to kill Americans will not be abused in the future? Is there a process at all, or was it merely an ad hoc decision to target this particular American? And, perhaps most importantly, where's the specific language, in American and international law, that permits presidents to authorize the killing of American citizens?

Yet in the 10 days since the Times and Post stories were published, virtually nobody appears to be querying the Obama White House on those matters.

As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out yesterday, the White House press corps hasn't asked a single question at the daily press briefings. And the liberal groups that used to assail Bush for executive overreach on issues such as torture now seem to have fallen conveniently silent. Is it somehow OK to put the hit on an American as long as a Democratic president makes the decision? Is it fair game to ask the aforementioned questions only if a Republican authorizes the hit?

Obama's authorization has even unnerved the right-wingers at The National Review; as one commentator lamented last week, "Surely there has to be some operational constraint on the executive when it comes to killing U.S. citizens....Odious as Awlaki is, this (hit job) seems to me to be setting an awful and reckless precedent." There has been virtually no such outrage on the left, nor any indication that the Washington press corps will start asking the necessary questions.

Awlaki is obviously a very bad actor. He has been cheerleading attacks on the U.S., and he has been linked to the Fort Hood shooter and the failed underpants bomber. He may or may not have become an operational player for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; one Yemen expert writes in Newsweek that Awlaki is "a nobody - at best a mid-level functionary," but The Times and The Post reported that the anonymous Obama sources "believe" Awlaki to be more important than that.

I guess we're supposed to simply trust those government sources, and move on. But, war on terror notwithstanding, this issue is too important to ignore. Regardless of who sits in the White House, fundamental questions need to be answered.

Spencer Ackerman, one of the relatively few independent journalists in Washington, said it best last week: "If citizenship means anything, it means that a citizen can't be killed because the government uses secret evidence to say he or she is an intolerable threat...When a government asserts a right to target its own citizens on a global battlefield - without due process, independent review, or even a clearly defined standard - it's a big story."