Analysis Foreign Policy

don’t kill me, bro!

The New York Times dropped a bombshell expose earlier this week when it reported on many details of a ‘Secret Kill List’ that the President heads up. The existence of such a list within the administration isn’t news: the Los Angeles Times reported more than two years ago about a CIA drone hit list when there was talk of putting US citizen Anwar al-Awalki on it. Of course, he was put on that list and was later executed by drone to much fanfare.

What is new information is the personal role that Obama himself takes in deciding who lives and who dies. According to Tuesday’s Times article, “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.”

Apparently this nomination process is a big production too: Melissa Block of NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed the Times story’s coauthor, Scott Shane, who said the following about it:

One person compared it to baseball cards. It’s sort of a creepy analogy, but these are PowerPoint slides of suspected terrorists – al-Qaida members – who are being considered in what’s called a nomination process. The Pentagon’s part on this is quite open, with a bunch of agencies on video link, people talking in kind of security video teleconference, why we think this guy is al-Qaida, why we think he’s a threat, why he’s dangerous, why should he be put on the kill list, and other agencies having an opportunity to challenge that.

The Times story itself went into slightly greater detail:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.

This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

Apparently these meetings are followed by a weekly review of the prime suspects, so-called “Terror Tuesday” reviews, over which the President presides. And, adds the Times article, “when a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.” Obama is explicitly declaring himself secret judge, jury, and executioner. And who else should tag along at these death panels but a senior political advisor:

David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.

Much has been said about these revelations, but among the most interesting developments is the response from Salon’s David Sirota, who has launched an official petition through the White House’s new We The People petition site. The macabre petition, which you can view and sign here, says

The New York Times reports that President Obama has created an official “kill list” that he uses to personally order the assassination of American citizens. Considering that the government already has a “Do Not Call” list and a “No Fly” list, we hereby request that the White House create a “Do Not Kill” list in which American citizens can sign up to avoid being put on the president’s “kill list” and therefore avoid being executed without indictment, judge, jury, trial or due process of law.

The petition is darkly tongue-in-cheek, but this is just another step in a long chain of developments around the curtailment of civil liberties because of Terrorism fears. Indeed, I’ve updated my page about Obama’s targeted assassination program to reflect this latest information, and you can go there to learn more about how this fits into the larger picture.

It’s too soon to tell, but this story appears to be making pretty big news. Perhaps the President will need to address this issue to appease his base. But I wouldn’t hold my breath in an election year when the defense rhetoric of the newly-minted Republican challenger is just as bad or worse. Axelrod’s presence in the meetings says it all: Obama can’t afford to appear weak on Terror. Luckily for him, he doesn’t.

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