URBAN JOURNAL: War, counterterrorism, and the presidency

BY MARY ANNA TOWLER

Republicans have been howling about a recent New York Times article, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” charging that Obama insiders leaked highly sensitive information to Times reporters to make the president look strong.

Boy, “looking strong” isn’t the message I got from the article. This is a very troubling look at Obama and our counterterrorism efforts.

Among other things, journalists Jo Becker and Scott Shane laid out a key part of the administration’s counterterrorism tactics: its apparently broad definition of a terrorist suspect, and the determination, by President Obama himself, of which suspects should be killed and when.

We are in a new kind of world, with a new kind of enemy. And as we prepare to vote in another presidential election, we need a national discussion about how we deal with the enemy before we go much farther down this road.

An increasingly important part of our war on terror is the use of Special Forces and drones to slip in and kill people we believe are a threat. And not just in Afghanistan.

So far, according to this report and others, the policy seems to be breeding terrorism, not quashing it. We may kill everyone on Obama’s hit list, but that won’t prevent other terrorists from rising up. And, Becker and Shane wrote, “Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.”

And while drone strikes are highly targeted, they are also killing civilians, “collateral damage” with consequences far beyond the death of innocent people.

Ibrahim Mothana, an activist and writer in Yemen, argued in the Times recently that our use of drones in Yemen is “leading to the Talibanization of vast tribal areas and the radicalization of people who could otherwise be America’s allies in the fight against terrorism in Yemen.”

And then there are the constitutional concerns.

Take the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Al Qaeda propagandist living in Yemen. Awlaki had not only “helped inspire a dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood,” Becker and Shane wrote, but had “gone ‘operational,’ plotting with Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the airlines was over the United States.”

We found him and killed him: killed a US citizen, in a foreign country, without a trial to determine his guilt or innocence.

The Justice Department’s legal counsel “prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step,” wrote Becker and Shane, “asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”

L’etat, c’est moi.

The Obama administration hasn’t released the Justice Department’s memo. Michael Hayden, a former CIA director who is a Mitt Romney advisor, says the Obama strategy should be made public. “The program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president,” he told Becker and Shane, “and that’s not sustainable.”

“Democracies,” said Hayden, “do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a DOJ safe.”

(I’m not the only one who is noting that if George Bush had done this, Democrats would have been up in arms.)

It’s not enough to say that terrorism is a real threat, demanding a new response. It’s not acceptable to say that this issue is too complicated, and too sensitive, for public discussion. We are not at war with Yemen. We are not at war with Pakistan. But we are singling out people in those countries and killing them. What are the rules governing this?

If we trust Barack Obama to decide whom we will target, will we trust Mitt Romney to do it?

How should we respond to terrorism?

Who should be involved in the decision-making?

How much should the public know?

Will we discuss this during this presidential campaign?

We’d better.

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