Letter from the US: Obama asserts sweeping powers to kill US citizens

President Barack Obama's nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA underscores the administration's drive to assert absolute executive power in the “war on terrorism” without any outside constraints or possibility of review.

Brennan was a public defender of the use of torture and "special rendition" under the Bush administration.

He was CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, working with that arch-reactionary regime in setting up a secret drone base there. It was used to bomb Yemen, "taking the impoverished nation a test case for US counterterrorism strategy", according to the New York Times.

See also: Killer drones cause widespread trauma

More recently, he lurked in the basement of the White House as the chief coordinator of Obama's "list" overseeing drone strikes by the military and the CIA, advising the president on which strikes he should approve.

A recent revelation on the powers Obama has assumed fill out the picture, but only the tip of the iceberg has come into view.

This revelation was an undated and unsigned "white pape" obtained by NBC News. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it outlines, "the power that the government has to carry out the targeted killing of American citizens" even when they have not been charged with a crime, even when they do not present any imminent threat in any ordinary meaning of that word.”

"So it's a pretty sweeping power that'sbeen set out," Jaffer said. "And the memo purports to provide a legal justification for that power and explain why the limits on that power can't be enforced in any court.”

The memo does not discuss any specific target and emphasises that it does not go into the specific thresholds of evidence that are deemed sufficient to warrant the killing of a citizen. All decisions on whom to kill and why are left up to the arbitrary authority of the executive branch, ultimately to the president.

There is not only no provision for judicial review, the memo expressly rejects any such review before or after killings.

It has been known that the US killed Anwar al-Awaki and Samir Khan in Yemen in September 2011. Both were US citizens. Two weeks later, another drone killed al-Awaki's 16-year-old son, also a US citizen, in Yemen.

But the importance of the memo goes far beyond the killing of al-Awaki.

The white paper is only a summary of the legal document asserting these powers. The document itself is secret.

The document has the force of law, although it was never voted on by any legislature. It is a fiat -- an Italian word used by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to describe the laws he proclaimed.

The white pape・ is couched in language to make it appear it concerns only al-Qaeda or "an associated force". But it is so broad that it can easily encompass any group or individual this or any future administration designates as "terrorist" or otherwise as an enemy.

By asserting such power over US citizens, the fiat clearly extends to the rest of the people of the world.

Only a few Americans have been targeted by Obama for assassination to date. Thousands more have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. And that is without discussing the hundreds of thousands killed in the Afghan and Iraq war zones.

The latest number the government owns up to are 4700 killed in drone strikes in countries where the US is ostensibly not at war.

The government claims these are mostly al-Qaeda or "militants". Yes, a few unfortunate "mistakes" happen where civilians are killed, but such "collateral damage・ is limited, is the claim.

Washington lumps together all who fight against Washington's overt and covert invasions of their countries as al-Qaeda or "associated forces", whether they are or not.

"Militants" are obviously just such fighters. In the US, the word "militant" has historically meant a union or socialist activist. I once edited a socialist newspaper titled The Militant.

Why has this white paper seen the light of day just now?

One reason, from the administration's point of view, can be inferred from how it has responded to its release. It has gone on a full-court press, to use a basketball term, in defense of the fiat. Not only the White House, but the Department of Justice and military figures have voiced full-throated support.

For the same reason, it is putting forward John Brennan as head of the CIA, to defend the torture, drones and "targeted killing" he is associated with.

What it is aiming to win is open popular support for the claims of the white paper, establishing the fiat as law and precedent.

But there is another side. Some in the ruling circles are uneasy about the targeting of citizens for killing without charges, trial or judicial review. Others are sceptical about the drone attacks, fearing they are driving more people into the resistance.

“Could the targeted killing campaign be creating more militants in Yemen than it is killing?” the NYT asked on February 5, quoting unnamed sources. “And is it in America's long-term interest to be waging war against a self-renewing insurgency …?”

Even retired General Stanley McCrystal, who formerly oversaw the drone strikes before he was forced into retirement for disrespecting Obama, has said that the drones “were hated on a visceral level”, in some of the places where they were used. McCrystal said drones contributed to a “perception of American arrogance”.

We will see whether such qualms surface in the upcoming Senate hearings on Brennan’s nomination.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]


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