Quick U.S. Constitution quiz. How do you answer?

The president has the power to order the assassination of a U.S. citizen. True or False?

I always believed the (obvious) answer to this question was “False.” The Constitution declares we’re entitled to a jury trial. But Constitutional law scholar and current President of the United States Barack Obama says I’m wrong:

The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki…

It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said. A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president.

But the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a House hearing in February that such a step was possible. “We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

Who can grant permission to assassinate an American citizen without trial? Apparently, the president’s National Security Council:

People on the target list are considered to be military enemies of the United States and therefore not subject to the ban on political assassination first approved by President Gerald R. Ford.

Both the C.I.A. and the military maintain lists of terrorists linked to Al Qaeda and its affiliates who are approved for capture or killing, former officials said. But because Mr. Awlaki is an American, his inclusion on those lists had to be approved by the National Security Council, the officials said.

With a jury trial, a judge and jury have faces, evidence is presented, testimony is given, and witnesses are cross-examined.

With this decision to assassinate an American, no one is taking any responsibility. The New York Times article offers no evidence of the man’s alleged crimes and is written almost entirely based on confidential statements from faceless, unnamed executive branchers:

  • “American counterterrorism officials say…”
  • “They say they believe…”
  • “…said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity.”
  • “…former officials said.”

Even some at the conservative National Review are scared by the idea of a Jack Bauer president murdering American citizens without trial:

[A]m I the only one who is just a little bit queasy over the fact that the president of the United States is authorizing the assassination of American citizens?

…Surely there has to be some operational constraint on the executive when it comes to the killing of U.S. citizens. It is not impossible to imagine a president who, for instance, sincerely believes that Andy McCarthy is undermining the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute the war on terror on the legal front. A government that can kill its citizens can shut them up, no? I ask this not as a legal question, but as a moral and political question: How is it that a government that can assassinate Citizen Awlaki is unable to censor Citizen McCarthy, or drop him in an oubliette? Practically every journalist of any consequence in Washington has illegally handled a piece of classified information. Can the president have them assassinated in the name of national security? Under the Awlaki standard, why not?

Posted by James on Thursday, April 08, 2010