Updated: March 10, 2013 6:15AM
Barack Obama, Democrats and liberals once denounced CIA harsh interrogation tactics as torture but now claim that Obama as president has the right to kill U.S. citizens he deems to be enemy combatants. Republicans and conservatives who once had no qualms about waterboarding suspected terrorists now worry about the due process rights of the men Obama targets for death by drone strikes.
Polarizing politics tend to distort perceptions of nearly all issues. It’s safe to say that were George W. Bush president and claiming the right to decide life or death for Americans he considered to be enemies, the left would be loud, shrill, combative and unrelenting in opposing such a claim of executive power. While a few liberal voices have challenged Obama’s assertion of such dramatic authority, they have been muted because he is one of their own.
Still, the debate over the use of unmanned drones to strike at our enemies in places around the world as varied as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has reached a critical point where the generalizations of partisan politics is giving way to thoughtful questioning of this national security issue on both sides of the political divide. A bipartisan group of 11 U.S. senators, eight of them Democrats, demanded the White House offer a detailed legal opinion explaining and justifying its use of such deadly force against American citizens.
This is a sore point. The Obama administration was quick to release the legal arguments for enhanced interrogation tactics written by the Bush Justice Department but refused to make public the legal basis for its drone program. In response to the 11 senators, the White House did order the Justice Department to release the legal memo only to the Senate and House intelligence committees. All that the rest of us have access to is a 16-page Justice “white paper” obtained by NBC News.
That document asserts the power to kill a U.S. citizen in a foreign country if “an informed, high level official” determines that the individual is “a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or an associated force” who “poses an imminent threat” and who can’t be captured. Critics say that is too vague, asserts unchecked presidential power, uses an elastic definition of “imminent” and ignores that the U.S. is engaged in authorized armed conflict only in Afghanistan.
While I think the administration should make public its legal justification for the targeted killings, these complaints likely demonstrate why the White House is reluctant to do so: It will be subject to a thousand objections ultimately aimed at tying the commander-in-chief’s hands even though the Constitution authorizes him to conduct war.
Yes, the white paper is vague, but no policy can detail every contingency in the complex struggle against Islamist terrorism that is not confined to Afghanistan but ranges across the globe, as recent events in Libya, Algeria and Mali demonstrate. “Imminent” can be hard to pin down given that terrorist attacks are plotted in secret and employ weapons not always recognized as such, like box cutters in the case of the 9/11 hijackings.
While I have doubts about many Obama domestic and foreign policies, his drone campaign is not one of them. When Bush was conducting the war on terror amid withering criticism from the left, I said I was willing to cut some slack for the people responsible for protecting the lives of my family and my country. That’s no less true now that Obama is charged with the duty of safeguarding American lives and interests in a dangerous world.