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the memo and then deciding that al Qaeda is pretty much always about to attack the U.S., he concludes
Well, either this makes a certain sense to you, or you just think that a state can't be in the business of killing its own citizens and that's all there is to it. There's no doubt that a sentence like "the president has the power to order the assassination of American citizens" sounds positively despotic. However, these are people who have gone off and joined Al Qaeda (the white paper also mentions "associated groups," and one definitely wonders where that line is drawn, precisely). If an American citizen of German descent had gone back to...Germany in 1934 and joined the Nazi Party and worked his way up such that he was involved in the plotting of attacks against American soldiers, and Roosevelt had order him killed, no one would have batted an eye in 1940s America.
You got that? You're either with the president's logic or you can't understand it (shades of George Bush's simplistic, Bible-based manicheanism when he said you're either with us or against us!). There's enough qualifiers in the passage above to give anyone pause, of course: Who are the associated groups after all? How exactly is this like 1940s America? The short version, as even Tomasky eventually grants later, is that "it's not 1940s America." Last time, I checked, Congress declared war against Nazi Germany. And the Nazis kept membership lists which greatly minimized - though didn't eliminate fully - questions of who belonged. Maybe more important, mistakes were made, including the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans and alien residents for no good reason other than hysteria. Can we learn at least a little from the past? And not the distant past, either. Enough of the detainees at Gitmo were wrongly held so that you'd figure Obama (didn't he pledge to shut that prison down?) would want to make double-plus sure that he's targeting the right bastards?
But all Tomasky's mental whittling is besides the point, really, because people aren't saying they can't think of scenarios in which the state has the legitimate right to kill bad guys (including its own citizens) without going through every possible aspect of criminal or military due process. The current controversy is over Barack Obama's unwillingness to explain precisely how and when he's been making such calls and exactly where he thinks he derives the right to do so.
Tomasky's colleague at The Daily Beast, David Frum, is not beset with internal strife. A former Bush speechwriter (best known for coining the phrase "the Axis of Evil"), Frum says that just about anything Obama does is plainly covered under the authorization of the use of military force (AUMF) that was signed a few days after 9/11. "That resolution remains in force today," writes Frum. "It assigns to the president - not to some judge - the authority to determine who committed the 9/11 attacks. It assigns to the president - not a jury - the responsibility to prevent any future acts of international terrorism." Leaving aside the fact that it was signed a dozen years ago, the AUMF does direct the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force" to bring the 9/11 terrorists to justice as well as "to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States." While the authorization covers a lot of ground, it doesn't mean that the president, or whoever he designates, can simply do whatever he pleases. As Eli Lake noted for Reason in 2010, the Supreme Court limited President Bush's powers under the AUMF and the Obama adminstration itself pledged to respect international law even while prosecuting the war on terror. More to the point, perhaps, the AUMF doesn't mean that Congress can't oversee or be privy to the president's actions and logic. What does it say about Obama's respect for a separation of powers and the Constitution that he has refused to give the Senate the classified truth on his decision matrix for killing suspected terrorists? Nothing good.
We grudgingly allow the government to surveil, detain, and confront people all the time when various sorts of suspicions are raised; the difference is that there is a clear framework in place so that we can judge whether the government is acting in accordance with the law rather than simply acting on its own impulse. You'd think that Obama - an Ivy League lawyer and a Nobel Peace Prize winner no less- would be proactive in reassuring the Congress and the country that he's not flying by the seat of his pants on this.
By making clear that as a journalist he tries to see things first and foremost from the perspective of the powerful, Michael Tomasky helps to clarify why so many in the media are rushing to the president's defense. They are entranced with power and the view from the top. "Presidents live with that responsibility [of protecting American lives] every day," he writes. "If that responsibility were mine, I can't honestly say what I'd do, and I don't think anyone can." Not all journalists are awed by power, of course, even on the right (National Review's Jim Geraghty, for instance, asserts that this sort of thing of extra-judicial killing policy wouldn't be cricket even under a GOP president).
This isn't ultimately about ideological hypocrisy - of liberals changing their tune once their guy is in office - but something much more basic and much more disturbing. It reveals that for all their crowing about being watchdogs of all that is good and decent in society, when push comes to shove, too many journalists are ready and willing handmaidens to power - including the power to kill.
There's the old saw from Mother Jones - the namesake of today's left-wing publication - that her job was to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." To its credit and unlike too many on the broadly construed left, Mother Jones (the magazine and website) still believes that as it relates to civil liberties. As Adam Serwer has written,
The Obama administration claims that the secret judgment of a single "well-informed high level administration official" meets the demands of due process and is sufficient justification to kill an American citizen suspected of working with terrorists. That procedure is entirely secret. Thus it's impossible to know which rules the administration has established to protect due process and to determine how closely those rules are followed. The government needs the approval of a judge to detain a suspected terrorist. To kill one, it need only give itself permission.
That such an obvious analysis escapes so many in the press is troubling, to say the least. But it makes total sense if, as Michael Tomasky says, you focus first on what you would do if you were in "Politician X's position." The world - and your concerns - must surely look different when viewed from such a lofty vantage point.